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Detroit is shutting down. But Eastern Market is staying open.

Why the food hub plans on keeping its Saturday market running during the coronavirus pandemic

A line of cars drive on a road next to two large brick sheds with metal roofs.
Eastern Market on a summer day.
Photo by Michelle Gerard

In response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has suspended operations of all Michigan restaurants and bars for dine-in service. Most other businesses and institutions in Detroit have closed indefinitely.

Eastern Market, however, is keeping its traditional Saturday market open. The reasoning is simple.

“People have to eat,” says Dan Carmody, president of the Eastern Market Partnership (EMP). “We’ve been Detroit’s pantry and grocer since 1891. We have a role to fulfill and we intend to fulfill it.”

Grocers are one of the few types of businesses more or less universally allowed to operate. Even in Italy, which has suffered the second most cases of COVID-19 worldwide causing nearly the entire country to shutter, food stores have remained open.

“With restaurants closing down, keeping the market open is even more important,” Carmody says. “More than ever, people need to buy in bulk.”

Last Saturday, as public spaces across the city were closing, Eastern Market made the difficult decision to stay open. The previous day, March 13, Whitmer banned all public gatherings of 250 or more people.

That particular restriction wasn’t an issue on Saturday. Carmody estimates there were 20 percent fewer customers than you’d find on a normal market day in March, on top of an already slow time of the year.

Nonetheless, EMP took added precautions by prohibiting food samples, increasing surface cleaning, leaving shed doors open to avoid unnecessary contact, and distributing signs urging customers not to touch produce. It’s also cancelling all classes and allowing only food and wellness businesses to sell.

The market is also essential to vendors, which often rely on Saturday sales to stay in business.

Bucu Farms, a multi-generational hog farm that makes specialty pork products, has been selling at Eastern Market since the 1980s. While it has an online sales component, almost all of its business comes from Saturdays at the market.

“We wouldn’t have a business without Eastern Market,” says Dan Bucu, owner of Bucu Farms.

Bucu said that while foot traffic was light, individual sales increased by an average of 30 percent as people stocked up. Bucu Farms staff also wore gloves that they regularly replaced and had hand sanitizer available for all employees and customers.

Like everything else at the moment, Eastern Market’s status is an open question. Warmer weather traditionally brings throngs of customers to the market on Saturdays, making close contact between people inevitable and increasing the likelihood of spreading the virus.

Carmody says some tough choices will have to be made. “We obviously don’t want to put people at risk, but we also want them to have access to healthy food.”