STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

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.

Restrictions in place in Minnesota, Iowa | Answers, symptoms and prevention | For complete Coronavirus coverage, click here | Iowa Department of Health info | Minnesota Department of Health info | Daily timeline of cases in Minnesota, Iowa | Sign up for our Coronavirus newsletter | Click here for Iowa unemployment info | Click here for Minnesota unemployment info

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: 448268

Reported Deaths: 6013
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin931011480
Ramsey40016739
Dakota33072340
Anoka30999364
Washington20164228
Stearns17871187
St. Louis13690241
Scott1195496
Wright11614104
Olmsted1048475
Sherburne821365
Carver694836
Clay653280
Rice606868
Kandiyohi554371
Blue Earth541033
Crow Wing482774
Otter Tail457167
Chisago452732
Benton420186
Winona389646
Douglas374166
Nobles370846
Mower365529
Goodhue347958
Polk328658
McLeod325345
Morrison311744
Beltrami310347
Lyon302236
Becker284939
Itasca284543
Isanti282841
Carlton280043
Steele27379
Pine266713
Freeborn245321
Todd231730
Nicollet224636
Brown215134
Mille Lacs214246
Le Sueur210015
Cass207623
Meeker199733
Waseca189316
Wabasha17083
Martin170026
Roseau165416
Hubbard149338
Redwood139727
Renville137539
Houston135913
Dodge13474
Chippewa131332
Cottonwood127218
Fillmore12355
Wadena120116
Rock110212
Sibley10857
Aitkin108433
Watonwan10668
Faribault105916
Pennington99215
Kanabec97818
Pipestone94423
Yellow Medicine93714
Murray8815
Jackson85610
Swift83418
Pope7385
Marshall70215
Stevens7018
Clearwater68514
Lac qui Parle65716
Lake63715
Wilkin6259
Koochiching59610
Lincoln4841
Big Stone4573
Unassigned43768
Grant4298
Norman4248
Mahnomen4107
Kittson37219
Red Lake3174
Traverse2503
Lake of the Woods1951
Cook1140

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 305606

Reported Deaths: 4278
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk45754449
Linn17795275
Scott15444163
Black Hawk13773236
Woodbury13016175
Johnson1211749
Dubuque11387150
Pottawattamie8992112
Dallas888671
Story869434
Webster469771
Cerro Gordo466768
Sioux455157
Clinton450361
Warren443938
Marshall427761
Buena Vista393429
Muscatine390477
Des Moines381841
Plymouth350368
Wapello344198
Jasper321959
Lee317130
Marion304952
Jones271349
Henry264330
Carroll255434
Bremer245048
Crawford231022
Boone218417
Washington217632
Benton209444
Mahaska193136
Jackson192031
Tama187757
Dickinson186026
Delaware173736
Kossuth173644
Clay168820
Wright164824
Fayette162322
Hamilton160029
Buchanan159923
Winneshiek155719
Harrison155162
Hardin154729
Cedar153219
Clayton151448
Butler148224
Page144715
Floyd139636
Cherokee139027
Mills136416
Lyon135332
Poweshiek132724
Hancock130224
Allamakee127928
Iowa125422
Calhoun12279
Grundy121226
Jefferson120724
Madison12039
Winnebago119429
Mitchell116234
Louisa115030
Cass113341
Chickasaw111612
Sac111215
Emmet110831
Appanoose110538
Union108822
Humboldt105519
Guthrie103024
Shelby102926
Franklin102418
Unassigned9310
Palo Alto9079
Montgomery85622
Keokuk85026
Howard84219
Monroe81218
Clarke7957
Pocahontas77611
Ida74630
Greene6927
Davis69121
Adair68820
Lucas6508
Monona64016
Osceola6409
Worth6113
Taylor5949
Fremont5126
Van Buren49712
Decatur4894
Ringgold4389
Audubon4158
Wayne41421
Adams2963
Rochester/St. Mary'S
Clear
wxIcon
Hi: 37° Lo: -1°
Feels Like: -12°
Mason City
Partly Cloudy
wxIcon
Hi: 39° Lo: 1°
Feels Like: -8°
Albert Lea
Partly Cloudy
wxIcon
Hi: 38° Lo: 0°
Feels Like: -8°
Austin
Partly Cloudy
wxIcon
Hi: 37° Lo: -1°
Feels Like: -14°
Charles City
Partly Cloudy
wxIcon
Hi: 38° Lo: 1°
Feels Like: -10°
Get ready for a midweek warm-up!
KIMT Radar
KIMT Eye in the sky

Community Events