Flea markets were allowed to reopen back in Phase 2, so why is reopening the Brimfield Flea Market proving so difficult?

The happiest place on earth, Disney World, reopened July 2020, with Disneyland reopening April 30.

The happiest place on earth, Disney World, reopened July 2020, with Disneyland reopening April 30. Fenway Park is expecting to reopen allowing about 4,000 fans in the stadium. And flea markets in Hubbardston, Sandwich and Wellfleet have reopened.

So, where does that leave Brimfield Antique Flea Market?

The Brimfield Flea Market’s fate for this year is still undecided due to the COVID pandemic, with the Board of Selectman planning to announce the decision by the end of the month.

But even if the town’s selectmen give the go-ahead, vendors and field operators told MassLive that opening the Brimfield Flea Market by May 11 might be a challenge.

The state has qualified flea markets as retail, allowing them to reopen with restrictions in June 2020. Still, Brimfield Flea Market did not reopen.

“When we contacted the state last year, we were told that we could not allow the flea market to operate,” said Brimfield Board of Health Chairman Richard Costa.

In emails obtained by MassLive, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development Emily Chabot confirmed the state allowed flea markets to reopen in Phase 2.

Other field operators told MassLive they heard similar conflicting accounts.

The final decision, however, was left to the town itself.

But by the time the commonwealth had moved to this phase, the July show had already been canceled. They began looking forward to September instead.

“We are very sorry to announce that due to circumstances beyond our control the Brimfield Antique Flea Markets will be closed for the July event as well,” Organizers announced on their Facebook page. “We hope to see you all in September!”

By August that show had been canceled too.

Nicholas Burns and his family previously told MassLive they lost out on $150,000 last year as one of the many vendors and operators that were unable to do business at the Brimfield Flea Market due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had to take a loan out,” Burns said, adding that prior to the pandemic his family was expecting to finally pay off the field they had purchased. “It was just a rough year.”

More than a year after the pandemic began, there is still a lot of confusion regarding reopening.

The state issued a series of guidelines for the field operators, even setting up a call between the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards and multiple people involved in the show to help clarify what those mean and how it works.

Some of the guidelines include only allowing 109 people per acre, preventing congestion in high traffic areas, booths spaced six feet apart, face-covering requirements and more.

The guidelines are standard for retailers — but Brimfield isn’t set up like Home Depot, something field operators are concerned about.

“It has been very confusing and exhausting,” said Klia Ververidis, one of the field operators. “The flea market is unique because it is 20-plus separate individual businesses that happen to open at the same time 3 weeks a year. On the one hand, we are retail, on the other, we are an event.”

One of the requirements is that booths must be six feet apart. But one field owner asked why three feet wasn’t being considered as schools sometimes operate using three feet instead of six. The question was not answered during the meeting.

Another asked why tent walls that connect to a roof don’t count, as plexiglass being allowed in other retail businesses was mentioned.

“How does that wall not work better than plexiglass in all the stores,” the person asked.

A few people noted the Brimfield Flea Market feels more like Fenway Park than Walmart.

Fenway Park is allowed to reopen with 4,000 fans this season.

The park is nine acres. One field operator noted that his field is 15 acres and asked why it was limited differently. The field operator also noted that they’d never had that many people at once, even during a normal year.

The difference is that people at a baseball game will stay seated, while those at Brimfield are moving around, said Mary Dozois, supervisor for Workplace Safety & Health Program for the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards during a call with field operators, the town’s board of health and other town members.

She also noted that those at Brimfield might be going out to eat or other places.

However, those who have attended a game at Fenway Park know that restaurants and bars surround the area. Many even take public transportation to get there.

“I look at Fenway and Gillette and I’m left scratching my head as to why they have such high occupancy and we have such low occupancy when we have similar acreage as they do,” Ververidis said. “A lot of the guidelines are conflicting across the board.”

The state agreed it might have to go back to the drawing board for some of the requirements. But will it be too late? The town’s Board of Selectmen have said they are making a decision for the May show by the end of March, which also leaves field operators and vendors a little more than a month to adapt.

“The guidelines in place are so restrictive, that many fields, including probably ours, will choose not to open,” Ververidis said. “If they increase the occupancy levels and decrease the 6-foot spacing between booths we would revisit that decision but we would have to know by literally Monday. We are already so behind schedule, there will barely be enough time to throw the show together as it is.”

For Ververidis, her field does not have a fence that goes around the entire perimeter. She would likely have to buy or rent a fence, which can be costly, to ensure that she can keep count of how many people are on the property.

There are also concerns about additional fines put in place to enforce the guidelines.

“Each person present over any capacity limit may be fined as a separate $500 violation against the market organizer payable to the local board of health,” the guidelines state.

MassLive previously reported on multiple stories where vendors and field operators feel the police have overstepped.

The $500 violation could be issued by a number of organizations, including the police department.

Another concern for the local board of health is contact tracing.

“If the contract tracing expanded into something that the local board could not handle that’s a little bit of a concern for us,” said Costa. “We only have my health agent doing the contact tracing.”

He noted that at places like Disney or Fenway, people have to buy a ticket to get in, which makes contact tracing easier. That’s not the case at Brimfield Flea Market.

“We don’t have that option,” he said. “There’s people that just come, park the car and go to the field. And so we have no real monitoring of who’s there.”

Brimfield Flea Market can attract 50,000 people from all over the world, according to the website. And while cases began declining last month, Friday marked the second straight day of more than 2,000 new infections.

He said the board of health wants to reopen the flea market but they want to do it the right way.

Field operators have already submitted some plans about what this would look like if they are allowed to reopen, he said. So this isn’t the first time they’re having this conversation.

Still, as guidelines and plans fluctuate, it can be difficult for field operators.

Some field operators, such as David Schultz at the Brimfield Barn, may have to resort to new business plans if they’re unable to open.

“If we don’t reopen we lose a lot of money,” he said. “We were not open at all last year … Lost a year’s income from the markets.”

The way they operate is different from most fields because they have a physical building, which allows them to have a few backup plans for this upcoming year.

He doesn’t know what the fate of the rest of the fields will be. It’s up to the town and state, he said.

“We’ve done everything that we can do, and frankly it’s out of our hands at this point,” he said.

Some might be relying on other flea markets or shows.

On April 3, more than 15 vendors will be selling vintage toys, comics, video games and more at the first of two shows Gary Sohmers is hosting this year at Boxboro Regency Hotel.

It’s all items you might see at the Brimfield Flea Market if it is allowed to reopen this year.

Sohmers been attending the Brimfield Flea Market for 35 years, and has even been an appraiser on Antiques Roadshow.

“Once you decide it’s for you, it becomes the ritual,” he said.

He hopes to add the flea market in Brimfield to his list of shows he’ll be attending this year. He believes it can be done safely, especially as he looks at other flea market shows he’s attended during the pandemic.

“It’s not spring break. We’re not going to drink and party and get naked,” Sohmers said. “We’re going to buy and sell stuff.”

Sarah Taby and her husband are vendors at Brimfield Flea Market but this isn’t their full-time job, which has provided them some cushion during the pandemic.

Still, they said they’d definitely return this year if allowed.

“I missed the road,” she said. “I haven’t been home for a year straight in so many years.”

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