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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: 609810

Reported Deaths: 7746
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1263481799
Ramsey53049910
Dakota47251475
Anoka43239465
Washington27676296
Stearns22670227
St. Louis18260319
Scott17701139
Wright16528153
Olmsted13517103
Sherburne1213096
Carver1074649
Clay829692
Rice8252111
Blue Earth770744
Crow Wing688599
Kandiyohi670085
Chisago627054
Otter Tail590687
Benton585398
Goodhue485674
Douglas478481
Mower477633
Winona463752
Itasca462768
Isanti446066
McLeod434361
Morrison427962
Beltrami410263
Nobles410050
Steele400819
Polk390872
Becker389357
Lyon365254
Carlton356958
Freeborn351134
Pine337623
Nicollet334245
Mille Lacs314956
Brown308840
Le Sueur299727
Cass288233
Todd288233
Meeker266044
Waseca240823
Martin237033
Roseau212421
Wabasha20843
Hubbard198041
Dodge18973
Renville183446
Redwood178141
Houston175516
Cottonwood168224
Wadena165023
Fillmore159210
Faribault156920
Chippewa154038
Pennington153820
Kanabec147828
Sibley147310
Aitkin139237
Watonwan13619
Rock129019
Jackson123112
Pipestone117126
Yellow Medicine115320
Pope11396
Swift107518
Murray107410
Koochiching96819
Stevens92611
Clearwater89217
Marshall88817
Lake84520
Wilkin83813
Lac qui Parle76122
Big Stone6094
Grant5958
Lincoln5863
Mahnomen5669
Norman5509
Kittson49122
Unassigned48293
Red Lake4037
Traverse3825
Lake of the Woods3484
Cook1740

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 374664

Reported Deaths: 6109
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk58891646
Linn21448342
Scott20426250
Black Hawk16680319
Woodbury15319230
Johnson1473686
Dubuque13595213
Dallas1144099
Pottawattamie11307177
Story1082848
Warren592092
Clinton564393
Cerro Gordo562297
Webster538996
Sioux519174
Muscatine4920106
Marshall491479
Des Moines478275
Jasper452073
Wapello4366123
Buena Vista431040
Plymouth404982
Lee392658
Marion369177
Jones301257
Henry301037
Bremer292763
Carroll286252
Boone271234
Crawford270841
Benton262755
Washington259851
Dickinson250745
Mahaska232551
Jackson225842
Kossuth219166
Clay217327
Tama213372
Delaware211743
Winneshiek200636
Buchanan196734
Page195422
Cedar192923
Hardin191144
Wright189140
Fayette188243
Hamilton186851
Harrison181973
Clayton173057
Butler167835
Madison167719
Floyd164642
Mills163824
Cherokee161538
Lyon160941
Poweshiek159036
Allamakee155552
Hancock153134
Iowa148324
Winnebago145731
Calhoun143113
Cass140855
Grundy139333
Emmet136741
Jefferson134535
Sac132620
Shelby131838
Louisa130249
Union129535
Appanoose128049
Franklin127823
Mitchell127243
Chickasaw125717
Guthrie124532
Humboldt124526
Palo Alto114924
Montgomery106738
Howard105322
Clarke102424
Monroe100633
Keokuk99932
Ida92735
Adair89632
Davis86825
Pocahontas86822
Monona85931
Greene79111
Osceola79017
Lucas77423
Worth7568
Taylor67112
Decatur6629
Fremont64810
Ringgold56824
Van Buren56718
Wayne56323
Audubon52913
Adams3494
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