A shopper buys eggs Wednesday at the downtown Santa Monica Farmers Market. (Madeleine Pauker)

Shoppers selected fresh produce, meat and dairy from stands affixed with signs urging them to maintain a distance of six feet from others at the Santa Monica Farmers Market Wednesday.

City and county officials closed restaurants to dine-in customers earlier this week but have allowed grocery stores and farmers markets to remain open so residents can continue to buy food. But with grocery stores running out of items as shoppers buy staples in bulk, some people are opting to stock up at their local open-air markets.

At the downtown Santa Monica market Wednesday morning, dozens of farmers sheathed in latex gloves served customers one by one as a couple hundred people milled around the market, which stretches for several blocks along Arizona Avenue.

Patrons were not allowed to touch or sample food and handwashing stations had been installed around the market. People were not supposed to come within six feet of each other — a rule people tried to follow but inevitably broke while moving past each other. A market worker wearing a yellow safety vest walked through the market, loudly reminding shoppers to comply with the rule.

Recalling crowds of panicked shoppers at grocery stores over the weekend, customers said they felt shopping at the market would minimize their risk of exposure.

“It’s very calm out here. Everyone is very courteous,” said Santa Monica resident Deborah Nikkel. “They’re abiding by all the laws and rules and regulations, and it’s just very peaceful.”

Although many grocery stores in the area were out of staple foods like beans and canned tomatoes, Lori Heal of 2 Peas in a Pod Farm had many varieties of dried heirloom beans available.

“Everybody is thanking us so much for being here and wants the market to stay open,” Heal said.

Meredith Bell, co-owner of organic meat and eggs purveyor Autonomy Farms, said her sales at farmers markets have at least quadrupled during the COVID-19 pandemic and her wholesale business selling to restaurants has ground to a halt.

“We’re getting a lot of people who don’t typically shop at farmers markets or haven’t been in a long time because they’re seeing a shortage of food in grocery stores,” she said.

Bell said while she loves having new customers and the opportunity to encourage people to support local farms, she said it has been hard to watch restaurants she has sold to for years suffer the fallout of coronavirus.

She said she plans to keep selling at farmers markets for the foreseeable future, taking all the precautions recommended by public health officials.

“At this point, all we can do is be proactive and do the best we can do,” she said. “People have to have food.”

madeleine@smdp.com

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