PEORIA - Customers won’t be allowed to touch the produce when the Peoria RiverFront Market opens May 16.


"You will tell the vendor what you want and they will put it in a bag and hand it to you," said Sharon Gramm, executive director of the RiverFront Market during a phone interview Monday morning. "They will also have one person handle the cash and credit cards purchases. We will require social distancing, so if you are waiting in line, there needs to be 6 feet between each person. And pets are not allowed. We’re treating it like an in-and-out grocery store. It’s not a social event this year, at least not to start with."


Only perishable produce and starter plants for vegetable gardens will be for sale during the May 16 market, but organizers hope to provide other locally produced organic goods very soon.


"We wanted to find an outlet for that perishable produce to start with, and once we have a handle on things, to grow from there," said Gramm. "The meat and eggs and honey can hold."


While farmers’ markets have been deemed essential by Gov. JB Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, what can be sold is being restricted and entertainment has been temporarily suspended.


"We’re not gonna have any ready-to-eat foods at the beginning, no music, no chef demonstrations," said Gramm.


Organizers have developed a timeline for re-introducing events as restrictions are lifted. Phase Two will allow less perishable agricultural products to be sold, and will likely happen fairly quickly since those goods are not restricted under the stay-at-home order. Phase Three will add baked goods, and Phase Four will add read-to-eat food and craft vendors. Timing for the final two phases will likely depends on the easing of restrictions at the state level.


Organizers are working with the Peoria City/County Health Department for guidance on sanitation procedures for vendors. Several sanitation stations will be provided for customers, and each vendor is required to provide a sanitation station at their booth, said Gramm.


Sanitation measures will likely make the first RiverFront Market a little tricky for vendors, said Evan Barry, owner of Down River Farm in East Peoria.


"We’re anticipating it being somewhat difficult at the first market. We’re hoping the customers are patient with us because it is kind of a new model for us," he said. "We’ve been having conversations with our employees about not only safe practices at market, but on the farm as well, making sure that it’s as safe as we can make it."


In spite of having to deal with new sanitation measures, business has been booming for area organic farmers, said Barry.


"I don’t know if it’s the natural progress of our business, or people being more aware right now, seeing empty shelves in grocery stores and being more aware of supply chain limitations and stuff like that, but we’ve seen more of a demand than ever," said Barry. "As of now we’ve been able to sell pretty much of everything we’ve grown."


Down River Farms will have a selection of early spring vegetables at the May 16 RiverFront Market - fresh greens, scallions, green garlic, radishes and beets. He hopes also to provide some starter plants as well, but demand has been particularly high for vegetable plants. Teresa Brockman, the mother of Barry’s business partner Kira Santiago, grows the plants in Eureka.


"She’s seen unprecedented demand for people wanting to start gardens, and so she’s having a hard time meeting all the orders," said Barry. "But we’re planning on having some options."


The pandemic seems to be providing a boost for organic producers.


"I hesitate to say it’s been good, overall, but in terms of raising awareness about food I think it’s done wonders," said Barry. "People feel safer buying it from us, because only one, two, maybe three people are touching it, whereas in longer supply chains like grocery stores it’s passing through as many as 20-plus hands."


Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.