Meatpackers cautiously reopen plants amid coronavirus fears

Smithfield Foods shuttered its Sioux Falls plant for over two weeks because of a coronavirus outbreak that infected over 800 employees.

Posted: May 4, 2020 10:14 AM

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — A South Dakota pork processing plant took its first steps toward reopening Monday after being shuttered for over two weeks because of a coronavirus outbreak that infected more than 800 employees.

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As two departments opened at the Sioux Falls plant operated by Smithfield Foods, employees filed through a tent where they were screened for fever and other signs of COVID-19. Some said they felt Smithfield would protect their safety with measures aimed at preventing another virus outbreak, while others said they were not confident that infections could be halted in a crowded plant.

Lydia Toby, who works in the ground seasoned pork department, said she was “kind of worried” as she entered the plant before 6 a.m. for her first shift in over two weeks. The company met employees in her department Friday and explained they had installed dividers on the production line and would require everyone to wear masks.

“I think it's going to be OK,” she said.

In the wake of an executive order from President Donald Trump ordering meat plants to remain open, Arkansas-based Tyson Foods was also resuming “limited production” Monday at its pork processing plant in Logansport, Indiana, where nearly 900 employees had tested positive. And the JBS pork plant in Worthington, Minnesota — just an hour east of Smithfield's South Dakota plant — planned a partial reopening on Wednesday.

Virginia-based Smithfield is offering COVID-19 testing to all employees and their family members, according to a text message sent to employees and seen by The Associated Press. The message told employees to report to a local high school to be tested. It wasn't clear if testing was required before employees could return, and Smithfield didn't immediately respond to questions.

About 250 employees were told to report to work on Monday, according to the union that represents them. The plant employees about 3,700 workers and produces roughly 5% of the nation's pork.

Salaheldin Ahmed, who works in a department that has not yet reopened, said he was called in by plant management to look at the changes that have been made in the plant.

“They fixed a lot of things,” he said, describing how workers would be spread apart where possible.

According to a CDC report released Friday, more than 4,900 workers at meat and poultry processing facilities have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, including 20 who died. Some states didn’t provide data, so the actual count is believed to be higher. The actual number of COVID-19 infections is also thought to be far higher than the number of confirmed because many people have not been tested and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick.

The CDC researchers said plant workers may be at risk for a number of reasons, including difficulties with physical distancing and hygiene and crowded living and transportation conditions. They suggested that disinfection be enhanced and that workers get regular screening for the virus, more space from co-workers and training materials in their native languages.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents roughly 80% of beef and pork workers and 33% of poultry workers nationwide, has called for stricter measures than CDC recommendations, including mandating that workers be spaced six feet apart on production lines. It has appealed to governors for help enforcing worker safety rules. The union also want to get rid of waivers that allow some plants to operate at faster speeds.

As plants warily reopen or others operate at diminished capacity with many workers staying home sick or in fear, it's unclear Trump's order will guarantee an unbroken supply of meat in grocery store coolers.

It appeared it will take some time before meatpackers are able to both protect employees and operate at capacity. Toby said that after reporting for her shift, she was told she was not needed and to come back on Tuesday.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 547101

Reported Deaths: 7056
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1139831672
Ramsey47188850
Dakota41764418
Anoka37816415
Washington24550273
Stearns20738218
St. Louis16572296
Scott15682117
Wright14561125
Olmsted1264796
Sherburne1037380
Carver964944
Clay773889
Rice7506101
Blue Earth687340
Kandiyohi622679
Crow Wing603586
Chisago541549
Otter Tail537473
Benton524597
Mower448632
Douglas437270
Winona436649
Goodhue435371
Nobles397848
Morrison389159
McLeod385754
Beltrami369257
Isanti367559
Itasca362552
Polk359866
Steele354614
Becker349348
Lyon345048
Carlton325352
Freeborn323629
Pine307521
Nicollet303242
Brown292239
Mille Lacs274849
Le Sueur267622
Todd266430
Cass245926
Meeker230337
Waseca228720
Martin210729
Wabasha19903
Roseau194818
Hubbard169241
Dodge16914
Renville169143
Redwood164835
Houston162014
Cottonwood154120
Fillmore15109
Pennington149019
Chippewa144236
Faribault142419
Wadena142021
Sibley134010
Aitkin127536
Kanabec126821
Watonwan12509
Rock121818
Jackson115410
Yellow Medicine109819
Pipestone108825
Murray10189
Pope9946
Swift98018
Marshall84717
Stevens79910
Lake77919
Koochiching76412
Wilkin76312
Clearwater76114
Lac qui Parle73422
Big Stone5564
Lincoln5562
Grant5428
Norman5169
Mahnomen4898
Unassigned48278
Kittson46122
Red Lake3827
Traverse3595
Lake of the Woods2983
Cook1440

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 356437

Reported Deaths: 5797
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk55735598
Linn20229329
Scott18871234
Black Hawk15498306
Woodbury14858219
Johnson1395580
Dubuque13097202
Dallas1086796
Pottawattamie10668160
Story1027747
Warren552386
Clinton535489
Cerro Gordo520486
Webster507691
Sioux504873
Marshall476674
Muscatine456896
Des Moines440465
Wapello4250120
Buena Vista421440
Jasper407370
Plymouth395979
Lee367255
Marion354275
Jones292755
Henry286037
Bremer278560
Carroll278550
Crawford261739
Boone257231
Benton249555
Washington249149
Dickinson240443
Mahaska223849
Jackson217842
Kossuth212362
Clay209325
Tama206571
Delaware202039
Winneshiek193733
Page190320
Buchanan188131
Cedar183123
Fayette182841
Hardin179242
Wright179135
Hamilton177749
Harrison175273
Clayton166455
Butler162334
Mills158120
Cherokee156638
Floyd155042
Lyon154041
Madison153019
Poweshiek152333
Allamakee149051
Iowa145124
Hancock143334
Winnebago135731
Grundy135032
Cass134454
Calhoun133011
Jefferson130535
Emmet128240
Shelby127137
Sac126619
Appanoose126547
Louisa126349
Mitchell125241
Union123932
Chickasaw122515
Humboldt118026
Guthrie117328
Franklin112521
Palo Alto110121
Howard102622
Unassigned10010
Montgomery100037
Clarke98023
Keokuk94330
Monroe93428
Ida89233
Adair84232
Pocahontas83221
Monona80930
Davis79924
Greene76410
Lucas74922
Osceola74716
Worth7058
Taylor65112
Fremont61210
Decatur5899
Van Buren55518
Ringgold53522
Wayne51923
Audubon4949
Adams3274
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