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Soda City head details in-progress safety plan for market's mid-pandemic return on June 27

Soda City market in Columbia

Shoppers at the weekly Soda City market in downtown Columbia look over produce and vegetables. Photo by John Carlos

Soda City Market announced its June 27 return last week. It wasn’t good timing.

That same Thursday, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control announced a daily tally of 687 new COVID-19 cases — then a record, though South Carolina has since seen a day above 900.

Not the best moment to announce the return of a weekly Saturday market where thousands gather on Main Street to shop for crafts and produce and eat from food trucks. Indeed, market founder Emile DeFelice states the obvious when he tells Free Times that the unfortunate timing wasn’t planned.

“Running this thing, it's like going to see a theater, it looks easy for people to get up on stage to sing or act. … You’re not supposed to see behind the curtain,” he says. “It’s not easy.”

When it does return, DeFelice’s market will look markedly different. The plan is still in development, but he reveals that it will include extending the market to sprawl across four and a half city blocks and encouraging attendees to follow organized two-way walking lanes, among other public health measures.

It could reassure some Columbia residents who balked at the return and the timing of the announcement on social media.

While DeFelice says Soda City saw a mostly positive response to the announcement, there were many who remarked on the high COVID numbers that day and the general upward trajectory of such figures. In response, Soda City detailed that it was developing a plan that would be approved by the City of Columbia.

“The variables aren’t really changing as far as what this town is going to look like,” DeFelice says when asked why now is the right time for the market to come back, indicating that he doesn’t expect any drastic shifts in the coronavirus situation any time soon.

When pushed a bit on the fact that positive cases are up, he responds, “I would return the volley and say why wasn’t Walmart ever closed, why weren’t all these big box stores closed?"

DeFelice says the market is trying to be flexible in light of the pandemic. He says the market initially pitched vendors on a June 20 return, but pushed back to allow more time to prepare and ensure the availability of public safety resources.

“The quarantine has given me a few new skills,” he offers. “One is apologizing really f#!ing quickly. When you’re living with people under the same roof, there’s no room for strife. No. 2 is is patience. No. 3 is low expectations. Life is life.”

He also notes that recent protests against systemic racism and police brutality have slowed the process, though he also emphasizes that he supports these demonstrations — he calls them “a good thing, that mitigated availability of police."

Soda City’s evolving plan hinges on four main components, DeFelice details, those being vendors, staff, public and city-facing aspects. The market will ramp up in four phases with varying protocols to satisfy concerns in each of these areas. How quickly the market will proceed through these phases will be determined by a variety of public health benchmarks, like rate of infection.

One key aspect of the initial reopening will be the expanded, four-and-a-half block footprint — DeFelice notes that the market could expand to the 1700 block, as well, pending construction in that area. Other aspects include requiring vendors and Soda City staff to wear protective gear and sign a safety pledge, encouraging the public to wear masks, and encouraging two-way walking traffic among attendees to cut back on face-to-face interactions.

DeFelice also details that Dave Wegener, owner of the Wedge computer shop, is donating face shields for every vendor that will be there on reopening day. Wedge, which typically supplies custom Macs or repairs them, has been crafting face shields and masks for local hospitals throughout the pandemic, and is beginning to ship abroad, too.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin tells Free Times he's heard from various residents asking when the market may be able to return, and says the city wants it to return, as well. He also commends the market’s developing plan for reopening.

When asked if he’s optimistic the June 27 return date will hold, Benjamin says that the city and market will watch testing data and other benchmarks as the month progresses.

“I do want to always have that caveat that we’ll follow the data,” Benjamin says. “We’re going to see if we can do it right, if we can balance public health and the economy in a way that gives the small businesses, entrepreneurs and artisans [a chance] to succeed.”

At least one regular vendor is cautiously optimistic that Soda City’s return will go well. Ana Guiterrez, who works at her husband’s Paella’South stand, says that they plan to be there with protective gear in tow. She believes it's safer to be out in the open air and spaced out than it is to be inside at a restaurant.

The return comes as a relief for their business. They’ve done some deliveries on weekends, but she reports that sales were only about a fifth of what they are compared to being at the market.

“We’re going to see how everything goes. We’re excited, but at the same time the number of people with coronavirus is higher,” Guiterrez shares. “So we don’t know, it depends on how the market will work. I think if everyone is keeping safe with masks and gloves and everything, it will be safe.”

DeFelice is optimistic that safety guidelines will be followed by attendees. But he acknowledges the ultimate success or failure of bringing back the market right now will come down to how people behave.

“Wear a mask so your vendor can come back next week and continue making a living,” he concludes. “It's up to the public to rise to the occasion here. In my mind, it's not even a sacrifice.”

David Clarey joined Free Times in November 2019 as a food and news writer. He's constantly fighting competing desires to try cooking food at home and spending his entire paycheck on Columbia restaurants.

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