There’s no such thing as “business as usual” as the coronavirus-disrupted economy reopens.
All size firms, from large manufacturing plants to mom-and-pop grocery stores, are adapting to new health protocols to keep employees and consumers safe, and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Farms and their retail stands are no exception.
A panel of Cornell University agriculture specialists gave owners helpful information about all aspects of their operations during a recent online presentation, “Managing Fruit and Vegetable Farms During COVID-19: What Actions Should Farms Take?”
“The idea now is how do we go back to business, but do it differently?” said Mark Wiltberger, Cornell Cooperative Extension business management specialist in the Lake Ontario region. “If we don’t, we’re just going to have a repeat of what’s already happened.”
When the pandemic first hit, officials urged preventive measures such as staying home, social distancing and wearing face masks to control COVID-19’s spread. The latter two steps are still extremely important, but now as businesses reopen they must also screen employees, adopt contact trace procedures, and know what to do if somebody has symptoms or tests positive for the disease.
The screening process includes three questions. Has the business owner or employee had COVID-19 symptoms in the past 14 days? Tested positive in the past 14 weeks? Had close contact with a person with a confirmed or suspected case in the past 14 days?
“Think this through,” said Elisabeth Hodgdon, an Extension regional vegetable specialist in Plattsburgh, Clinton County. “Have a plan in place. If someone answers yes to one of the questions and doesn’t pass the screening, or if you have an employee who’s sick on the farm, what will you do to clean that area and prevent spread to other employees?”
Although burdensome, it’s important to keep records and have a daily checklist for each employee, which indicates how they answered each question.
Temperature recordings are also essential because a person whose temperature is 100 or higher is quite likely sick. Such information should be shared with public health agencies so individuals and those they’ve come in contact with may be isolated.
All businesses are required to fill out and adhere to a New York Forward safety plan that details specific safety measures they expect to adopt and adhere to.
Physical distancing is still the most effective way to keep COVID-19 in check. At many farms, this could require a radical change in the way ordinary tasks are performed.
“Think about operations on your farm and which areas are most at risk,” Hodgdon said. “Indoors, where people are in close proximity and there’s poor ventilation, is the most risky. Places like machine shops, wash pack sheds, offices and vehicles. Think about adjusting activities and work schedules to separate people.”
This might mean sending workers out to fields in multiple vehicles instead of one van, making multiple trips, and staggering greenhouse and high tunnel shifts so people aren’t working side by side.
“That can go a long way in preventing transmission if there is a sick employee on the farm,” Hodgdon said.
Employees must be kept 6 feet apart on produce packing lines, which should be kept outside, if possible, or someplace with good ventilation.
In farm-based retail stores, 6-foot distancing must be practiced the same as in grocery stores, with markings on floors that indicate where to stand while waiting in line.
At pick-your-own strawberry, blueberry and apple farms, it might be necessary to assign customers to specific rows or parts of an orchard.
“It’s very difficult to get social distance when plants are close together,” said Laura Biasillo, an Extension agricultural economic development specialist in Broome County. “By assigning rows you’re able to intentionally social distance people.”
Also, she advised farm stands to pre-bag items to keep shoppers from touching each tomato, for example, before buying one as they’re prone to do. In addition, regular customers should be encouraged to pre-order goods, in an effort to minimize contact with employees.
In addition to physical distancing and employee screening, the most important steps farm owners must follow to combat COVID-19 are protective equipment, hygiene and cleaning and good communication.
In some cases, close physical proximity is hard to avoid so all employees must wear masks. All workers should carry masks, too, in case they need to briefly come in contact with others, whether it’s riding in a truck cab or delivering goods to the retail stand.
“When possible, think about assigning high-risk employees to tasks that minimize contact with customers,” Biasillo said.
These would be people age 60 or older, who have a compromised health condition, or who live with or care for someone like that.
Every firm should have standard operating procedures for cleaning and sanitizing frequently used areas and equipment, and training employees how to do this correctly so they know how, when and where this is especially important.
“Really prioritize surfaces that have multiple people touching them such as shared tools, break-room kitchens, lunch counters and rest rooms,” Hodgdon siad. “Every farm is different. Try to pinpoint those areas of highest risk on your farm.”
Communication may come in many forms. Signs are a highly effective tool for letting employees and customers know what’s expected, but similar information should also be made available on social media.
Another new valuable tool is customer logging, a key component of contact tracing. This may not be practical for some businesses, but should be practiced wherever possible.
Keeping a log of visitors, with name and phone number, allows public health officials to contact anyone who might have been exposed to this individual if they’re sick or had the disease without showing any symptoms.