Hunts Point Produce Market , Bronx, N.Y., is taking precautions to protect its 10,000 workers from COVID-19 while buying, selling, storing and distributing fresh fruits and vegetables to stores and restaurants still allowed to offer takeout and delivery. ( Courtesy Myra Gordon of Hunts Point Terminal Produce Cooperative Association Inc. )

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Even though New York state ranks No. 1 for the most COVID-19 cases in the U.S., people still have to eat, and that means Hunts Point Produce Market, Bronx, N.Y., is as essential of a business as it ever was.

The wholesale terminal market — the largest in the world, feeding 7% of the U.S. population, within a 50-mile radius — is taking precautions to protect its 10,000 workers while buying, selling, storing and distributing fresh fruit and vegetables to stores and restaurants still allowed to offer takeout and delivery.

“There was this concern at the beginning of this that the food supply would dry up, but the reality is we continue to get a very good supply every single day, so that has not changed,” said Don Hoffman, public relations representative for the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Cooperative Association Inc. “Retail business is crazy busy. A majority of our business is bought by, particularly now in this tristate area, most is retail.”

Panic-shopping continues as grocery stores remain open, although some retailers are limiting the number of people inside at one time and posting exclusive hours for older people and shoppers that are immunity-compromised. 

Each day, the number of people diagnosed with the illness jumps up a startling amount.

By March 26, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo confirmed 6,448 additional cases of novel coronavirus, bringing the statewide total to 37,258, including 21,393 cases in New York City, according to daily state Department of Health updates

Between the mornings of March 25 and 26, the number of deaths in the state spiked by 100, making the total 385, according to Cuomo’s daily briefing. There were almost 1,000 deaths from the virus nationwide, according to a March 26 update by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So, while people need to eat, market workers have to be protected as much as possible.

“We’re taking this very seriously. We know how important it is for managers, whoever works there, drivers, buyers — we’re making all these folks follow these rules,” Hoffman said.

Precautions that Hunts Point Produce Market is taking include:

  • Giving gloves to all market members, packers and others working onsite;
  • Altering shifts and customer hours to limit contact;
  • Modifying market hours to meet changing schedules and needs;
  • Enhancing cleaning and disinfecting efforts in all common areas;
  • Practicing social distancing by trying to follow the 6-foot rule;
  • Controlling, by foreman enforcement, the number of people in each company’s warehouse at one time;
  • Installing barriers to keep distance between customers and sales staff;
  • Propping open all doors to the sales booths to reduce touching;
  • Tying back plastic freezer slats at all merchant stores to let fresh air in and reduce touch points for employees;
  • Keeping business separate between upstairs offices and downstairs selling docks;
  • Enforcing a no-work rule for employees with flu-like symptoms; 
  • Enforcing handwashing multiple times a day and hand sanitizer use;
  • Disinfecting surfaces that vegetables and fruit touch, before and after each shift; and
  • Barring anyone from entering the building if in the past 14 days they visited or had contact with anyone who traveled to China, Italy, Iran, South Korea or Japan.

Fresh produce from 49 states arrives to the 31 companies operating at the market situated on 112.5 acres.

“What’s really comforting is everyone is taking it in stride. Everyone’s really proud to be doing what they’re doing. It’s sort of a call to action,” said Gabriela D’Arrigo, vice president of marketing and communications for D’Arrigo Brothers Co. of New York. “People are really hunkering down and are helping their neighbors. If anyone didn’t see the importance of food before, they’re seeing it now.”

D’Arrigo said the family company was seeing “record-setting” retail sales for at least four days in a row in mid-March, more than around Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“If you’re in wholesale right now, it’s time to shine. We’re distributors. It’s what we do: We find homes for food. With all our different partners, we’re leaning on the relationships we do have and working together,” D’Arrigo said. “We’re still keeping our retailers supplied as best we can. As far as foodservice, that has taken a real hit.”

Longstanding relationships can help the company shift what foodservice can’t take to retailers.

The company is taking extra precautions to keep employees healthy and safe, following the cooperative association’s guidelines as well as their own, such as encouraging staff who can work from home to do so, contactless deliveries that mean drivers stay in their cabs, and extra use of gloves, masks and sanitizers.

D’Arrigo, as well as others such as Michael Armata, berry buyer for E. Armata Fruit & Produce, are encouraging growers and marketers to emphasize the immunity-boosting benefits of fresh produce during this health crisis.

“Health goes hand in hand with safety,” Armata said. “Part of being safe is giving your body proper nutrients. Have fresh produce in your house, rather than that frozen pizza you may go for especially in times of crisis. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself and your diet.”

Armata said his family’s company is focusing on these safety measures during this busy time.

“We’re trying to make it as easy as we can to help flatten the curve. Business is very important, and we all need to make a living,” Armata said. “But we’re all family down here and need to make sure everyone is OK to be there for our customers.”

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