Flea market and other activities return as cautious fairgrounds reopening continues

Shoppers rejoice! The flea market at the N.C. State Fairgrounds has reopened, and it’s welcoming the public once again – the socially distanced, clean-handed, nose-and-mouth-covered public, of course.

Officially called The Raleigh Market these days, it actually re-opened a few weekends ago for the first time since closing because of COVID-19. It will be open Labor Day weekend as usual, just not on Labor Day since that’s a Monday.

The market didn’t reopen as soon as retail locations were allowed to welcome customers again though. Spokesperson Kimberly Benou said the management knew there was interest from customers and that some vendors depend on the market for a livelihood. However, working with everyone involved took time with the focus always being public health.

The Raleigh Market before vendor distancing and face mask requirements.

“We just wanted to be sure the market was as safe as possible before reopening,” Benou said. “Although some retail had been allowed to reopen, we were dealing with such a big space and big audience that we wanted to be cautious.”

So on the first weekend of re-opening, management only allowed permanent vendors who wanted to return. Since then, they’ve allowed temporary vendors as well. However, temporary vendors can no longer just show up and request a space like they could in the past. Vendors have to pre-register so management can plan placement and spacing. Vendors have been spread out both inside and outside, with at least one vacant space between vendors.

Customers can also expect to see gates they have to go through as they walk from their cars to the vendor area. Those gates allow the market to restrict access if the crowd reaches the new COVID-era capacity, but that hasn’t been needed so far Benou said.

Customers will find hand washing stations, and they are expected to wear face coverings/masks especially if they can’t maintain a six-foot distance from others. The expectations for customers, the spacing of vendors, the layout, etc., all follow the protocols laid out in the governor’s executive order that allows retail operations right now.

“The market doesn’t fit any particular model, so we’ve had to forge our own path. It took a lot of planning, thinking, figuring out what others may be doing and if we could apply it here,” Benou said. “It’s a big market, so we’re very fortunate that we could spread out.”

Certain other activities have also resumed at the fairgrounds as long as they can abide by the protocols in the governor’s executive order. They generally fall into either retail or educational activities. It’s part of a measured strategy of “cautiously continuing to open the fairgrounds,” said N.C. State Fair manager Kent Yelverton.

For example, several exams for pesticide applicators are on the calendar. Other retail activities have included the Dixie Gun & Knife Classic. The Capital City Gun and Knife Show is on the calendar for Labor Day weekend. There have been bulk chicken sales and fair food drive-thrus that didn’t even require people to leave their cars. Several horse shows have also continued without spectators.

The fair food drive-thrus are organized by a vendor who collaborates with other vendors to determine who is willing and available to set up shop any given weekend. They have been popular enough to continue, and another one is scheduled for Labor Day weekend. The N.C. State Fair Facebook page is a good place to check for updates and announcements about any future dates.

Safely allowing certain activities on the fairgrounds is helping preserve a future for the N.C. State Fair, which operates on its own independent budget without state funding. Operations have been scaled back, but some maintenance has continued. Events that can be safely held will be the lifeline to producing the 2021 N.C. State Fair next October.

“As an enterprise fund, we’ve been hit hard just like other small businesses, and are evaluating all opportunities to open our facilities under current guidelines,” Yelverton said. “The show owners we are working with have been diligent in providing outlines for compliance with NCDHHS safety guidelines. We’re also working with several groups on possible drive-thru opportunities. In fact, we hosted a sold-out drive-in movie at the end of July and are preparing for several additional drive-thru fair food events.”

Among the several other retail activities that will continue as scheduled is the Old North State Antique Gun & Military Collector Show in late August. Show owner Richard Shields from Monroe, says he’s reviewed the new protocols and planned accordingly.

“Masks and social distancing, of course, for everyone,” he wrote in an email. “We’ll have hand sanitizer out and will sanitize things like the ticket counter, the door prize table, door handles, bathroom sinks, etc.”

Shields also said aisles would be wider to give people more space. Customers will drop their tickets in a box and stamp their own hands for re-entry instead of having a show employee do that. He said during a similar show in Georgia last month he had success with shoppers following the new rules.

At The Raleigh Market, Benou said the vendors and the customers have also respected and appreciated the precautions. She said vendors who have come back have done well, and each weekend since the reopening there have been more customers.

“We are cautiously optimistic. We are happy to be open despite having to undertake all these extra measures because we know it’s important to the vendors and to people in the area,” Benou said. “Even if we have to go through a few more hoops it’s worth it.”

So let the treasure hunting begin! …just don’t forget your face mask.

About Tractor Pull

Tractor Pull is the fair-themed alias for Brandon Herring, a public information officer in the Public Affairs Division of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. He's no stranger to the fair or the farm. A North Carolina native, he grew up helping on the family farm just east of Lumberton. After more than 15 years in TV news, he's sharing news of a different kind these days. He loves the rides on the fair's midway, but also loves that the fair has so many other things to see and do that are grounded in agriculture. His favorite fair food is a funnel cake with just powdered sugar - a classic!

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