A representative at Beachwood Farms' Headhouse Market stand uses a glove to pick apples for a customer, before the rules were relaxed

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Shopping at farmers markets in Philadelphia just got easier, thanks to a regulatory tweak about who can handle what at vendor stalls.

Next time you visit your favorite Philly farm stand, you can select your own apples, peaches, squash, beets or anything else you want to buy. No more pointing and waiting, or having to choose between pre-packaged bunches.

The city’s many weekly markets have since mid-March been under tight restrictions, issued by the Health Department to promote coronavirus safety. They included standard requirements like social distancing and mask-wearing — but also the industry-specific rule that customers were not allowed to handle produce.

That ban is no longer in effect, Health Department spokesperson James Garrow confirmed to Billy Penn, who said updated guidance was formalized in mid-September.

The change is expected to make things smoother on both sides of the table.

“It’s a lot easier having folks choose their own,” said Ben Wenk, a fifth-generation grower at Three Springs Fruit Farm, which sets up a popular stand at Headhouse Square each Sunday. The Adams County farm had been selling its produce in larger bundles, but people were annoyed.

“We’ve been getting a lot of blowback about not offering one or two apples or peaches,” Wenk said.

Allowing customers to grab their own should also also speed up service and cut down on lines, according to a representative of Beechwood Farms, a New Jersey grower that vends at both Headhouse and the Fairmount Farmers Market.

“We’re about to have like 15 different kinds of apples and pears out here,” he said on a recent Thursday. “Letting customers bag their own is much, much faster.”

The select-your-own allowance applies to any produce that’s “whole and intact,” meaning you’re likely to wash it before cooking or eating, said Garrow, of the health department. It brings the open-air stands in line with grocery stores, where customers have been allowed to handle produce for months.

“This ‘self service’ guideline is now consistent with the practices in other retail settings in Philly,” said Meghan Filoromo of The Food Trust, which advocated for the change.

Sales data are hard to come by, but anecdotally, farmers markets may not have suffered as much as other retail industries. The vendors at The Food Trust’s year-round markets — Headhouse, Fitler Square and Clark Park — have generally seen higher sales than 2019, or at least kept up with last year, Filoromo said.

Some boosts came early in the pandemic, when farmers markets provided shopping options that were outdoors, where the risk of coronavirus transmission is lower.

“All of the items we were selling in March, April, and beginning of May were less perishable; apples, canned goods, potatoes, etc.,” said Wenk of Three Spring Fruit, “and people were buying larger amounts. Our sales were up from last year.”

That trend is not necessarily continuing, however.

“With a cap in the number of people shopping, we’re down,” Wenk said. “From week to week, we’re down 20 to 30% from 2019, and most of that is attributable to COVID restrictions.”

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...