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Charleston Farmers Market will reopen in Marion Square with essentials-only on Sept. 26

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Farmers, food vendors, artists, craftsmen and entertainers draw a large crowd to the Charleston Farmers Market held in Marion Square. The market hasn't taken place in Marion Square this year due to the coronavirus. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The Charleston Farmers Market, which typically runs from April through November, will be back at Marion Square in a stripped-back format starting Sept. 26. 

The market has been operating as an essentials-only version that features four Johns Island farmers at the Joseph P. Riley Jr. baseball stadium parking lot on Wednesday afternoons. 

When the market reopens in Marion Square, it will still be an essentials-only market, but all of the market's farmers and growers will be invited to participate, said Office of Cultural Affairs Director Scott Watson. Artisans and prepared food vendors will not yet be allowed to participate in this format, which will involve a limited capacity and six-foot social distancing. 

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"It's a lot of footfall to navigate," said Watson. "We'll adjust as we need to." 

Around 80 vendors who were almost set to take their places under colorful tents along the well-trodden pathways in Marion Square earlier this year were waylaid when the coronavirus arrived in South Carolina, effectively shutting down businesses and quarantining residents. 

Many vendors rely on the weekly market for their entire annual income. Because of budgets already thinning from the marketless stretch in late winter and early spring, the pandemic couldn't have come at a worse time. 

"Many of us have given up other careers to keep the market going," said Amanda McLenon, an artisan and decade-long market vendor who created an online petition to get the Marion Square market back up and running before the Office of Cultural Affairs had announced its limited comeback.

Her petition, which suggests a rotating schedule for all vendors and not just farmers and growers, has been backed by several other vendors and shoppers and has more than 800 signatures. The holidays are approaching, and this is a vital season for vendors, McLenon said.

"This is not just about saving these small businesses," she said. "This is about supporting local families who have made this event happen for the past 30 years."

A holiday market is in the works that will include all vendors, including artisans and prepared food vendors, according to Watson.

The coronavirus reached South Carolina in March and it has taken a severe toll on the state, infecting nearly 131,000 residents and killing another 3,000. The growth curve has begun to flatten, but experts see more tough times ahead once the winter months arrive.

Bars and restaurants have, in many cases, reopened; the City Market is open; and venues are allowed to operate — all with with some safety protocols in place and at limited capacity.

Yet for McLenon and other vendors, it's been six months without receiving much-needed, expected income. McLenon said her online sales have measured about 10 to 20 percent of what she normally makes.

"For a while, we understood it wasn't safe to be there, so we sat back and sacrificed our livelihoods to keep people healthy," she said. "But if people are in the bars now, we can certainly be safely open providing local produce and handmade goods outside in Marion Square."

According to Watson, the Charleston Farmers Market was given the go-ahead to operate as an essentials-only market in Marion Square at a very limited capacity in June — the same month the John C. Calhoun Monument was protested and removed from the square. Watson said there were several factors necessitating the temporary move from the square to Riley Park.

The farmers were selected because of the immediate need to sell their perishable produce, Watson said.

The city of Charleston has a reopening plan that is based on hitting clear benchmarks, like new infections being on a decline for a sustained period, decreased numbers of people affected and hospital capacity. At Phase 4, the market should be able to return in its full capacity to Marion Square, according to Watson. 

"We're actively looking at how these things will realign," said Watson. "Everything is data-driven and informed by science as to what is safe."

Watson and his team have been working behind the scenes to upgrade and enhance the market's digital platforms with the goal to create a more enriched website and social media platform that can highlight vendors who presently can’t be a part of the in-person market. There is a new vendor directory online, which includes links to websites and social media pages. 

For Jeanine Ware Gantt, the "Charleston Soap Chef," that won't be enough. 

"This is our livelihood," said Gantt, who has operated her business for 17 years. "I have two young boys to support. I’m a single mom. It’s like the rug has been taken out from under us."

Gantt is operating a booth out of the City Market, which is run by the City Market Foundation, separate from the Office of Cultural Affairs. She said the Market Street operation has done an excellent job at resuming operations while staying safe.

City Market Manager Barry Newton said the market's safety program includes operating at lowered capacity (now at 75 percent), facing vendors outward to the pedestrian lanes along the streets instead of having people enter the interior space and hiring extra security guards to ensure mask usage. Vendors must also fill out a daily health form.

The foot traffic in the busy tourism sector of town is likely higher than that at Marion Square, where there is not a set buffer in place between vendors and customers like the City Market's brick walls. 

On one given Saturday morning, Watson said anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 people can attend the Charleston Farmers Market.

"The hard part is there is not any model right now about how to get 5,000 people safely assembled from 8 a.m. to noon, rubbing shoulders and coming and going with dogs on leashes and babies in strollers," Watson said. "We need incremental steps toward getting back to normal." 

Robert Fields of R. Fields Farm, included in the current essentials market outside The Joe, said he has been grateful and dependent on the weekly endeavor to sell his fresh fruits and vegetables. However, the foot traffic hasn't been nearly as steady as that at Marion Square and that has been problematic for sales. 

Getting back to Marion Square has been a goal of the Office of Cultural Affairs for months now, but the process to do so safely had not been fully developed. 

In addition to the Marion Square market, the West Ashley Farmers Market will also be back on Saturday mornings off the Greenway near the Charleston Tennis Center. 

Reach Kalyn Oyer at 843-371-4469. Follow her on Twitter @sound_wavves.