Farmers markets have become a place of refuge during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vendors with booths filled with fresh, locally grown produce or made-from-scratch breads, jellies and other provisions have given Bell County residents just a sliver of normalcy in a world now dominated by the coronavirus.

Most farmers markets in Bell County are out of season because of winter. But warmer days are ahead and booths will soon be springing up at Barrow Brewing Co. in Salado, downtown Belton, downtown Temple and West Temple.

“For us, we knew people were seeking out some thread of normalcy. Because farmers markets are essential, they can operate no matter what kind of shutdown is happening, of course,” Barrow Brewing Co. owner KD Hill said. “It was all about supporting community — community supporting community. The world got a lot smaller during the pandemic.”

Farmers markets became a vital resource during the pandemic. Early on, major grocery stores were out of stock of essential items, such as bread, milk, potatoes and other produce.

So once farmers market operators knew how to safely reopen by implementing virus mitigation efforts, people turned to local vendors to stock up their kitchens.

“You’re talking about local produce. You’re talking about a local farmer. You’re talking about the local florist. You’re talking about the people doing things in their gardens and the guy and the gal that makes the honey,” Temple Chamber of Commerce President Rod Henry said. “Just everything — it’s homegrown, home produced. The vendors are small business focused and orientated.”

Many of the same practices that have been hammered into people’s heads since March are on full display at farmers markets.

Vendors are spaced far apart to better practice social distancing. Masks are required for vendors and shoppers. Operators have set up handwashing stations and ensured each booth has a bottle of hand sanitizer.

“We did go in to change our rules just to make it safer for the people who wanted to come out and visit,” said Amanda Weckbacher, a special events coordinator for Temple Parks and Recreation. “We had all of our vendors wear gloves, try to take cashless payments when possible and obviously wear masks. Some people had drive-up options where you could order beforehand and come pick up your items.”

The coronavirus crisis did not hurt turnout at the markets. In fact, many of the operators said they had more people showing up to peruse the local products.

“We still had quite a bit of turnout,” Weckbacher said. “People seemed to be happy that we had it and modified it to be safer for them to come and visit. It actually worked out pretty well.”

Still, the markets did not go unscathed.

Leila Valchar, the past president of the Downtown Belton Business Alliance, the group that hosts Market Days in the county seat, said her organization was only able to have two farmers markets last year. Typically, the Downtown Belton Business Alliance will hold three in the spring and three in the fall.

“It has been very challenging,” Valchar said. “2020 was a very challenging year.”

Despite that, Valchar, the owner of My Giving Tree Gift Shop & Art Gallery, said the Belton Market Days events in October and November were a hit. Some vendors, she said, even saw record sales.

The farmers markets in downtown Temple and Belton have another purpose: Getting people to those areas to draw more foot traffic to existing brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants.

Judy Garrett, the city of Belton’s manager of convention and visitors bureau and retail development, said downtown is the perfect background for tourism and outdoor shopping.

Henry pointed out that downtown Temple is an area transitioning to a lively and bustling part of the city. The downtown farmers market is a good way to reintroduce the area to residents, he said.

“We have, in the farmers market area, a number of small business owners who are in need of support and in need of shopper traffic,” Belton Area Chamber of Commerce President Randy Pittenger said. “Things like the farmers market are good for those vendors, but it’s also a benefit for the other area stores and restaurants because people feel safe about getting out and doing their shopping and interacting. That’s good for our community.”

Area farmers markets may be hibernating right now, but they will return in the coming weeks.

“We’re just looking forward to 2021 and getting into a more normal routine in the future,” Valchar said. “I think we’ve all learned that we can still do things — just maybe wear a mask and social distance and be more aware of washing your hands and things like that. I just hope that we have a good year for everybody.”