After being ordered to temporarily cease operations due to COVID-19 concerns, the Helena Farmers’ Market announced Wednesday that it has canceled the remainder of its 2020 season.
“We’re going to pull the plug,” said Wayne O’Brien, president of the organization’s board of directors.
The city of Helena revoked the permit for the weekly outdoor market on Fuller Avenue last month at the request of Lewis and Clark Public Health, which said event organizers failed to meet the requirements of a July 8 health order seeking to limit the spread of COVID-19. The countywide health order prohibits events with more than 250 attendees and requires the organizers of events with 50-249 people to submit a plan explaining how they intend to adhere to certain health guidelines.
The market was held without a permit on July 18. According to a report from the Helena Police Department, an estimated 112 people were working the vendor booths and more than 250 patrons were in the two-block area by 10 a.m. that day.
On July 21, Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher filed civil action asking the court to force the market and the president of its board of directors to comply with the health order and pay an unspecified amount in expenses associated with obtaining that compliance. The next day, Lewis and Clark County Judge Michael McMahon issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the defendants from continuing to hold any events with more than 50 people without approval and requiring them to comply with any subsequent orders from the county health officer.
"The manner in which Defendants have operated and continue to organize events contrary to the Lewis and Clark City-County Health Officer Order 10-2020 constitute an immediate and irreparable harm, affecting and risking the health and safety of the citizens of Lewis and Clark County..." the restraining order says.
The temporary restraining order expired Aug. 1. Although the defendants were initially ordered to appear before the judge on July 31 to explain why the temporary restraining order should not be converted to an injunction, the hearing was canceled after the board agreed to comply with the county health order for as long as it remains in effect.
While the health department and the board attempted to find a way to operate the market in accordance with the county health order, O’Brien said the 250-person limit is ultimately too stringent to keep the event profitable.
O'Brien said this is the first time the market has been canceled since it started 47 years ago, and he hopes it will reopen in 2021.
“All of us are going to be sad,” he said. “We gave birth to a wonderful market that’s gone on for years.”
In a statement, Lewis and Clark Public Health officials said they were also saddened by the board's decision to cancel the market.
"Our staff, who have spent a significant number hours researching, consulting, and providing technical assistance are heartbroken to hear this decision. We too, are members of this community and believe the market is an essential part of contributing to a healthy, resilient, strong community," the statement says. "We had hoped for an amended plan that would allow community members access to the wonderful local products our vendors have to offer in a safe environment protective from the virus that causes COVID-19."
Lewis and Clark Public Health said it is available to help any vendors looking for alternative ways to continue selling their products outside of the market. The health department can be reached at 457-8900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Capitol Square Farmers Market, a separate event sponsored by the Montana Departments of Agriculture and Administration, is still being held from 2:30-6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays in the south oval parking lot at the Montana Capitol.
To comply with the 250-person limit, that market is converted to a drive-through event when the maximum capacity is met. When this happens, the vendors come to the patrons as they drive through the market without leaving their vehicles.
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