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Columbia's popular street market reopens first time after coronavirus closure

Soda City

A couple hundred people walked Columbia's Main Street for reopening weekend of Soda City Market since the coronavirus outbreak came to South Carolina.

COLUMBIA — William Glover strolled past booths displaying paintings and tables full of fresh produce Saturday. Peyton, a 2-year-old girl with a mischievous grin, bounced on his shoulders, a balloon flower in her hand she used to occasionally bop his head.

These were the scenes that marked the return of Soda City Market to Columbia's Main Street. The street market, with its numerous food vendors, crafters and live musicians, had been canceled since mid-March amid the global coronavirus outbreak. 

The event has become a Columbia staple Saturday mornings during the last 15 years, growing from just six vendors to covering four city blocks. And while the 10 a.m. crowd numbered between 200 and 300 as the event made its return, prior to COVID-19, it drew thousands of people each week.

"I'm sad there's not as many dogs," said Anna Vest, as she and her friends sought out their favorite coffee stand.

Street fair founder Emile DeFelice was giddy with the "near total and cheerful compliance" of market-goers with the city's mask mandate.

"People have risen to the occasion," he said.

The city allowed the market to expand its footprint to more than five blocks to give more space between the parsed down offering of 120 vendors. About 20 hand sanitizing stations lined the streets. And the event didn't boast its usual buskers or tables for eating in an effort to discourage gatherings. Shoppers were asked not to handle goods and vendors were encouraged to pre-package as much as they could.

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Eric Webster, who has been selling grits and other grains at the market since last year, said the lower traffic count was about what he expected. He said he felt safer with the city's mask mandate and standing out in the morning breeze was better than the anxiety-ridden grocery store experience COVID-19 has wrought.

While only a part-time gig, selling at Soda City had become a "fairly meaningful" source of income for Webster and it had "hurt a little" to lose it. He said it's too soon to say if the crowds in coming weeks will bring enough business to justify his return.

Pupuseria Sandrita operators Rafeael Robles and Sandra Vidal had tried takeout orders from Vidal's home and offering food delivery but the business volume was not the same as what the market used to bring.

Robles said they'll try to keep the food tent operating but they're not sure how long that will be unless business picks up.

Market vendors typically bring in total sales of nearly $8 million annually, according to DeFelice. The event is also a boon to Main Street brick-and-mortar businesses. 

Jessica Holdman is a business reporter for The Post & Courier covering Columbia. Prior to moving to South Carolina, she reported on business in North Dakota for The Bismarck Tribune and has previously written for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.

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