Opening Up Farmers’ Markets During the Coronavirus Pandemic – Are There Liability Issues?

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, one item up for discussion is allowing the reopening of farmers’ markets. Would there be liability issues? Plus, many are finding it unfair that religious services have not been deemed essential. Attorney Paul Harding of Martin, Harding & Mazzotti, LLP is on the radio with WVMT discussing these issues and more. Please give it a listen or read the transcript below.

Interviewer: We’re talking to Paul Harding from Martin, Harding & Mazzotti. And, Paul, I’d really like to get your insight. As we’ve been talking and wishing that the markets will open up, that people will get back to work. One of the things that they’ve been talking about opening up first is just they can open slightly, are the farmers’ markets. What do the vendors need to be concerned about when they’ve got people, who I’m sure are gonna come down in droves to try to get all this fresh fruits and vegetables, and access to other foods?

Paul: Sure. Sure. You know, one of the surprises was that they didn’t stay open. Right? You know, were they essential? We’ve got grocery stores. We’ve got convenience stores. We can, you know, stop by fast food. But why wouldn’t they allow them to be open? They didn’t. So, yeah, pent-up excitement when this actually happens.

So, one of the issues I think is gonna be…and people are always concerned about it, and I sort of, you know, we pay attention to stuff a lot, but what is the liability? Meaning, if what if someone goes to an event that you sponsor, whether it was a concert or a farmers’ market, and they get the coronavirus, right?

Are they…could they, as an organizer, be held liable in any regard? And the answer is, really, no. I mean, in a technical sense, maybe yes. But if you just sort of pay attention to what the civil authorities say, do what you’re supposed to do as an organization, it’s really not a reality. But what are we gonna see at these farms? We’re gonna see, to succeed, we’re gonna see lots of places to wash your hands and to just, you know, give people their space.

Interviewer: One other aspect of the stay-at-home orders in Vermont, and around the country, has been that some religious places, churches, etc., have been told that, you know, people, they can’t have their, you know, meetings at church on Easter, etc. And there’s been a lot of blowback about that from some people, and some questions about the legality of that. Like, where exactly do we stand on that with churches?

Paul: I think the funniest fact that I heard about that was you could drive through in New Jersey and buy liquor, but you couldn’t attend a outdoor even drive-through service, right, and you couldn’t go in. So, you know, there was these things that we…that contact was allowed, deemed essential, and the religious services were not. So, of course, that brought about a lot of angst and a lot of energy. And I guess, looking at it like this, you know, this thing happened so quickly that the public officials kinda did what they could. And the scenarios that turned out to be somewhat laughable, like the one I just described, happened.

But they couldn’t really look towards everything, right? They had to go more general. So, in this situation, yeah, liquor stores were open, churches were closed. And at the end of the day, you know, probably if they had a lot more time to process and think what it was gonna be, they would have found a way for folks to be able to attend the service, even if they were outdoor, or drive-through, or something like that.

Interviewer: How far does the scope of government’s emergency powers go in regard to some of these things?

Paul: Yeah. So, we started looking… You know, I guess they can go…really we’re getting near the edge right now. Right? We’re getting to the point where they’re just shy of saying, “Okay, Paul, where are you going? Show me your papers.” Right? “How far are you gonna be driving your car today?” We’re not there yet.

You know, but under… You know, so these constitutional rights that we have, that we hold so dear, can be withdrawn and can be taken back if there is deemed an emergency enough. But are we there? Many say we are. Many say it’s an overreaction. Maybe we need to kinda fight back and get some of those rights back.

But again, it’s…you can…it’s a debatable issue. Ultimately, public safety is the most important, and if it does get abused on the side of losing our rights, I think right now, we’re not in a strong position to make that argument.

Interviewer: Paul, we appreciate your insight, and we’re looking forward to talking to you again next week.

Paul: That sounds good guys. Thank you.

Interviewer: Thank you, and we encourage everybody to check out and ask questions at Martin, Harding & Mazzotti. You can give them a call at 800-529-1010, or go online to to get more information. All right.

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