‘Tis the season for apple picking in Central NY

'Tis the season for apple picking

With apple picking season upon us, here's how the fall-favorite activity has changed during the pandemic.
Published: October 14, 2020
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Navarino Orchard in Syracuse, NY.

As soon as the temperature drops below 70 degrees in late September, Central New Yorkers put on their cable knit sweaters, blue jeans and brown leather boots and head to the nearest apple orchard. But this year, a new accessory is required: masks.

According to the New York Apple Association, the coronavirus mandates haven’t affected turnout; their affiliated orchards in Central New York have been reporting business-as-usual. A staff member at Navarino Orchard in Syracuse said they were too busy to comment on their busyness. He said to call back in November—after apple season ends. So, in spite of COVID-19, the tradition of apple picking continues. There are just a few changes.

New York State mandates require apple orchards, like other operating businesses, to follow social distancing and mask-wearing rules. That means staying at or below 33% of the max occupancy, keeping six feet of distance at all times, wearing a CDC-approved face-covering and disinfecting shared workspaces and frequently touched surfaces.

Beak and Skiff Apple Orchards, a nationally recognized orchard in Lafayette, crafted a list of guidelines and information on their website for those who are COVID-wary. The apple orchard is enforcing the usual requirements of masks, social distancing in lines and hand sanitizer at the picnic tables. There are also no hay rides in the orchard this year, unless you’re an elderly or disabled customer.

However, not every pledge on the website is carried out. On a recent Sunday afternoon, when the orchard was bustling with apple pickers, the scales and credit card machines were not wiped down after every purchase and not all customers were reprimanded for not wearing a mask. For some, this was a cause for worry.

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Customers at Beak and Skiff order drinks at the counter.

“It was kind of scary to be there when there were a lot of people,” Natalie Muñoz said. Muñoz is a sophomore at Syracuse University who was visiting the orchard with her friends. “I wasn’t wary about going, but if I had really seen the way that things were organized, I probably would have been more wary—not necessarily enough to stop me from going, but I definitely would have considered it as a factor more.”

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Customers at Beak and Skiff in the outdoor seating area. Some wear masks, while others do not.

Even at only one-third capacity, Beak and Skiff can allow up to 2,000 customers on the property at one time. More people means more risk of exposure. Onondaga County health officials reported that five people who attended Beak and Skiff on Oct. 3 tested positive for the coronavirus on Oct. 6. The group wore masks for the majority of their stay, only taking them off to eat at the picnic tables. It is unknown whether other customers contracted the virus from them.

Burrell’s Navarino Orchard, a smaller orchard than Beak and Skiff, was more lax with coronavirus precautions. On a recent visit, some employees were not wearing masks, whether they were working in the orchard or selling apple fritters. This made customers like Tim Winters feel somewhat apprehensive.

“It is different, just being aware of the masks and when you’re too close to people,” Winters said. “When you do things, it’s not like it was before. You’d be more outgoing and people would be in a better mood and now, everyone is like, ‘Oh, how’s this going to go?’ because everything is different.”

While the usual spirit was dampened for some, on the surface, it looked like a normal weekend of apple picking. A mom roamed the orchards in a T-shirt that read, “Oh my gourd, I love fall,” and workers scolded kids for climbing the trees. Most customers were just happy to be outdoors.

“It’s such a beautiful fall day, we decided there’d really be nothing better to do than come pick a bag of apples,” said Central New York local Natasha Wilburs, who was there with her son, Michael. “It’s outside, so in combination with it being outside and having masks, I think it’s okay.”

Crystal Cole and her co-workers are more than familiar with the pandemic and mask-wearing because they work at a hospital, but that didn’t stop them from driving to Navarino Orchard.

“I feel like everything pretty much feels the same,” Cole said. “It’s actually busier this year than it was last year. It’s just a little hotter because you’re wearing a mask. My sunglasses fog up.”

For other customers, the COVID-19 regulations were not enough to continue their usual traditions. Even though they still went to the orchards, they took precaution into their own hands. Gary Mitchell, an elderly man who came with his friend, did not follow his typical apple picking routine. He bought an apple fritter and sat by his car in a folding chair, away from the crowd.

“This year, as a matter of fact, we didn’t do half the stuff we normally do because of all the business,” Mitchell said. “So we didn’t go out into the orchards, and we didn’t pick. I did pick up a couple of loose apples in the bins because it was easy and it was out in the open, and actually I went and paid out in the open as opposed to going into the enclosed area.”

Pandemic or no, this fall tradition remains sacred among families and friends.

“I actually called [Navarino Orchard],” Mitchell said. “I asked them what was going on, and they said, ‘It’s busy.’ So I said, ‘I wish you a lot of good health.’ Then I relayed it to my friend, and he said, ‘Oh, we’ll just go.’”

Avatar for Morgaine McIlhargey

is a magazine journalism major at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and contributor for The NewHouse.