Farmers Market Pavilion

Members of the RutherfordBARN (Building Agriculture Relationships Now) met at the Farmers Market Pavilion on Wednesday to debate how to handle the issue of whether to require face masks while at the market.

FOREST CITY — Should the Farmers Market require vendors and customers to wear face coverings while shopping during the coronavirus pandemic?

Confusion and dissension on the matter surfaced as topics of discussion at the RutherfordBARN (Building Agriculture Relationships Now) board meeting Wednesday in Forest City. An issue that has been plaguing many retailers during the pandemic has spilled over at the Farmers Market, leaving vendors and organizers at odds about how to reconcile safety practices and individual rights when it comes to wearing face masks.

“It’s a very complicated situation, but we have a mandate — let’s follow it,” said Brandon Higgins, board president and vendor, referring to the state’s order to wear a mask when in a group setting and unable to social distance at least 6 feet apart.

There are concerns among some vendors that urging customers to wear masks has had a negative impact on the Farmers Market.

“I just don’t want to push people away from the market like we have been doing,” said Wendy Shumaker, board treasurer and vendor.

David Hislop, Rutherford County Food Systems coordinator and Farmers Market manager, has been tasked with urging customers and vendors to wear face masks when at the market and inside of 6 feet from another person. Hislop asked the board for better direction about how to handle the situation, which is rubbing both vendors and customers raw.

“I can’t do it without a clear mandate by the board,” Hislop said, adding that he had been following Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive order.

The majority of those present expressed a preference for helping keep everyone healthy, but in a less forceful manner.

“You don’t want to get in the policing mode, but this (coronavirus) isn’t going away,” said Amy Bridges.

“Mask control is not worth it. It’s still a free country,” one vendor said. “I’ve watched you (Hislop) run them down and then they leave.”

One suggested remedy called for Hislop to use a softer approach, such as offering a customer a mask if they’re not wearing one, but not requiring or urging them to do so.

Just as there were concerns that requiring masks chases off business, others said those not wearings masks were keeping those customers preferring them from coming to the Farmers Market.

“I still worry about our older customers getting exposed,” Bridges said.

Talk soon turned to requiring vendors to wear masks while at the Farmers Market.

“I’m opposed to that,” said vendor Bob Young. “There’s no point to wear a mask if nobody’s around.”

The consensus was that if vendors were beyond 6 feet from customers and other vendors, a mask was not necessary.

“We’re trying to get away from policing,” Higgins said of too many rules.

In the end, the board reached a compromise by voting to call for each vendor’s table display a sign promoting the 3 Ws: wear a mask, wait 6 feet apart, and wash your hands. Each table is also to be equipped with face coverings to offer those not wearing a mask. Vendors will be required to wear a mask when inside of 6 feet of others, except those who have a health condition that precludes them from wearing one.