Garage sale sign (photo by Donna Kallner)

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After a couple months of stay-at-home orders, many rural families are faced with a new crisis: The kids didn’t stop growing. I’m not talking about the “Covid-15” weight gain that many adults experienced in isolation. I mean arms and legs that are too long for the shirts and pants they wore two months ago. And the shorts and tees they wore last summer? Yikes!

Unless they get some new clothes soon, some of our kids will look like modern-day relatives of Li’l Abner. You might not remember that old comic strip but that’s what your grandparents may be thinking of when you chop pant legs and sleeves off the clothes your kids are busting out of. 

In normal times, many rural families head to garage sales to get summer clothes for the kids. But these aren’t normal times. Some health departments, municipalities, even states have banned – or at least strongly discouraged – garage sales. 

And they do have some pretty good reasons. Normal garage sale behaviors could be risky during a pandemic, although those behaviors may sound far-fetched if you have never experienced a garage sale firsthand. Your neighbors are used to congregating in your driveway before a sale opens so they can rush in as a mob to be first to reach stuff you just want out of your house. And, yes, we do go from one garage sale after another to paw through other people’s junk. If you look at it from a health department standpoint, it’s the perfect recipe for community spread of a virus.

The adrenaline rush that comes with spotting a rack of garments “the right sizes!!!” doesn’t have to make you forget your pandemic manners, though. So if your area allows garage sales, here are ways both shoppers and sellers can protect themselves and their communities.

Pandemic Manners For Garage Sale Buyers

  • Leave the kids at home. You’re desperate for a little alone time anyway, and this is the perfect excuse. It’s not safe to risk them touching stuff, you say. Some people aren’t even allowing kids into their sales now. Take a tape measure and a list of their current measurements instead. You’re welcome. 
  • Be prepared. At minimum you will want to have hand sanitizer, a mask, that tape measure and list of current measurements, your own bags for containing purchases before they go into your car, and cash in different denominations (more on that below). Put that cash in an envelope: Nobody wants bills that have been tucked in your bra. Go to the bathroom before leaving home. Clear a space in the car for your purchases.
  • Keep a record. If you visit multiple sales to stretch out that alone time, snap a picture at each place. Geotagged photos will help you remember exactly where you were and at what time in case your health department calls you while contact tracing an outbreak. Having a clear record may help you avoid 14 days of unnecessary quarantine – or help you know to begin it sooner rather than later.
  • Look for signs. Many sellers will be posting signs that explain their expectations of buyers and the precautions they have taken for your safety. Find them, read them, follow them. If you can’t, politely excuse yourself and leave. This is not the time to haggle over pricing or politics. 
  • Keep your hands in your pockets. Yeah – don’t be touching stuff unless you’re seriously considering a purchase. Do others the courtesy of sanitizing right before you shop, and do it again before you open your car. Don’t touch your face.
  • Keep your distance. Using hand sanitizer and not touching your face help prevent the transfer of the virus from surfaces. But you are still vulnerable to airborne droplets from other people coughing, sneezing, laughing, and possibly even talking loud enough for a geezer like me to hear the question. A mask helps disrupt the trajectory of those droplets, which is why you want to see sellers and other shoppers wearing masks, too. But you still want to maintain that recommended 6-foot social distance, especially when the sale is inside a garage instead of in the yard. Rather than break that boundary, yield. A seasoned garage sale shopper knows some people have no concept of personal space. They should know better by now, but don’t bet on it. Likewise, if the seller has not limited the number of shoppers or isn’t enforcing the limits, you might as well leave. Your kids need you healthy more than they need new-to-them clothes.
  • Don’t linger. Viral transmission increases with time. Make it your goal to be in and out in 10 minutes. Be a Hunter, not a Gatherer: Scan, sight the target, acquire, retreat. It’s a different kind of satisfaction than you get from turning over each item to see what might be hidden beneath. But we both know that any item you miss this time will probably show up at another garage sale in a year or two. You’ll get another chance.
  • Don’t go if you or someone in your home is or has been unwell or had close contact with someone who might have been infectious. The responsible thing then is to stay home. Maybe instead you can text your list of current measurements and a link to this article to a friend who can shop for you. Imagine how much fun it will be telling your kids, “But Auntie picked this out just for you!” When every other article of their clothing is too tight, they might learn to broaden their taste in attire. Nobody gave me a choice and I survived is another option. Yes, we do turn into our mothers. 
  • Clean your purchases. Bag your purchases before putting them in your car. Launder or sanitize everything when you get home.

Pandemic Procedures For Garage Sale Sellers

  • Check the rules. If permits are required in your area, get a permit. Visit your county health department’s web site to confirm that garage sales are allowed and if so, what are the rules.
  • Weigh the risks. If someone in your household or close contacts circle is immune-compromised or there are other elevated risk factors, you may want to pass up this year’s sale. 
  • Skip the mega-sale. Most years there’s an advantage to having multi-household sales: The more items you have to promote, the more buyers you can attract. This year it might be best to target specific buyers and keep your sale smaller. Kid clothes? Perfect. Lawn games and outdoor furniture? Awesome. Books and home decor items? Leave them in the boxes where you Marie Kondo’d them during quarantine. They’ll be ready for next year’s sale.
  • Skip the ads. Maybe this year you don’t really want shoppers coming from outside your area. Attracting targeted, local shoppers to a smaller sale is doable on social media. Let people know when it is (and no early sales), what you will have (pictures help), what you will do to protect buyers, and what precautions you expect from buyers. 
  • Be clear about expectations. In your social media posts, let people know what you expect. At your sale, post signs with those expectations in several locations. Yours may differ but here’s a sample:
  • Rules of This Sale
    • No early sales. 
    • Buyers must wear face masks.
    • Only 4 buyers allowed in at a time.
    • Keep your distance.
    • No children.
    • Buyers get 10 minutes to shop if others are waiting.
    • Ask for help. Clothing is sorted by size.
    • Cash only, exact change appreciated.
  • To price or not to price? Pricing takes time, requires extra supplies and handling, and is nobody’s favorite part of garage sale preparation. Instead, you might try a “priceless” sale:
  • Pay what you think is fair or what you can afford. We want to make cashing out simple and with minimal contact. Exact change is greatly appreciated. Thank you!

Some shoppers are uncomfortable with this style of sale because they’re afraid they will offend you by offering too little. The only way it really works is if the seller is resolved to accept whatever amount a buyer tenders. If you can’t do that, better spend the time pricing and be prepared to handle more cash as you make change.

  • Cash handling. If you do a priceless sale, you can minimize handling of money by having buyers deposit directly into a piggy bank or equivalent. You can DIY a cash drop by cutting a slot into a recycled gallon ice cream tub covered to hide the contents. For security, duct tape the lid in place and zip-tie the tub to something too big to walk away. You will still want to be able to make some changes, just in case. At the end of the day you can put on disposable gloves just once to count up your earnings.
  • Crowd control. If possible, set up your sale outdoors with spacing that allows a safe social distance between shoppers. If you must set up inside the garage, position racks or tables with more space for movement than you might have allowed at previous sales. You may want to display clothing (especially kid clothes) by size in separate groupings so people aren’t handling everything to get to what they need. To limit the number of shoppers at one time (and hold back the early birds), mark out a perimeter. We use flagging tape and electric fence posts. You might even consider a one-way traffic flow with separate entrance and exit.
The author uses flagging tape and electric fence posts to set up a sale perimeter and control traffic — especially early bird shoppers. Photo by Donna Kallner
  • No play area. In normal times, some sellers set up a play area to keep kids occupied so their parents shop longer. Or they have a box of toys or treats and the little ones can pick out a freebie. Not this year.
  • Take Covid-19 precautions seriously. Disinfect surfaces (including plastic hangers) as you set up, and throughout the sale. Wear a mask. Provide hand sanitizer (you may want to zip-tie it to something that can’t walk away). Maintain social distance. Provide a lined trash container for customers who wear disposable gloves while shopping.
  • Protect your home. When you have to go into your home to use the bathroom, take the time to use hand sanitizer and let it dry before reaching for the door. Once you get inside, wash your hands thoroughly. On your way back out, disinfect faucets, doorknobs, light switches, and other surfaces you might have touched.
  • Protect yourself. Keep your mask on. Don’t touch your face. When you need to eat or drink, have another member of your household cover for you at the sale and go inside. Wash your hands, remove the mask, and wash your hands and face. Feeling grubby is normal when you hold a garage sale, even without a pandemic.
  • When it’s over, take down signs, shift unsold items as necessary, and close up. While you’re still grubby, count the cash and place it in a clean envelope. Sanitize surfaces you touch as you enter your home. Clothes go right into the washer, you go right into the shower. 

It will take a bit of planning and some simple precautions to garage sale during this pandemic. But please, take those precautions seriously. A few days after a sale you don’t want to wish you had.

Donna Kallner writes from rural northern Wisconsin.