CORONAVIRUS

Meatpacking plant in Sioux City area to close amid coronavirus outbreak

In this April 2020 photo provided by Tyson Foods, workers wear protective masks and stand between plastic dividers at th
In this April 2020 photo provided by Tyson Foods, workers wear protective masks and stand between plastic dividers at the company’s Camilla, Ga., poultry processing plant. Tyson has added the plastic dividers to create separation between workers because of the coronavirus outbreak. (Tyson Foods via AP)

DAKOTA CITY, Neb. — Facing growing public scrutiny over an outbreak of COVID-19 at its Dakota City beef plant, Tyson Fresh Meats said late Wednesday it will shut down the 4,300-employee facility for four days, beginning Friday.

Tyson officials said the halt in production will provide time for a complete deep cleaning of the entire plant, the meat giant’s largest beef processing facility.

The temporary closure of metro Sioux City’s largest employer comes amid a surge in novel coronavirus cases. Last week, the spike landed the metro area at the top of the list of U.S. cities with the highest daily growth rate, with cases doubling every day or so.

Both of the area residents who have died from the novel coronavirus worked at the Dakota City plant.

Tyson also said Wednesday it started screening plant workers for COVID-19 this week, with assistance from the Nebraska National Guard.

“Tyson testing all employees is a step in the right direction,” said a health care provider who has treated local COVID-19 patients. The provider spoke to the Journal on the condition of anonymity.

Dakota County, Neb., which is one-fifth the population of neighboring Woodbury County in Iowa, had no cases as recently as April 11, but has since reported 704 positive tests, third most among Nebraska’s 93 counties. Woodbury County has 749 cases.

Thirty Woodbury County residents were admitted to Sioux City hospitals for treatment of the virus as of Wednesday, up from 17 hospitalizations the previous day, according to data released by Siouxland District Health.

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The health care provider said the inpatient numbers are expected to continue to grow, with MercyOne Siouxland and UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s requesting more ventilators from the state in anticipation of a further surge.

“It’s just alarming to see that type of increase and the potential for the loss of life and … people being very sick in our community,” Mayor Bob Scott told CNN in a live interview Tuesday night. “We’re hopeful now the curve will start to go down like it has in other places.”

Maintaining pay

While the Dakota City plant is temporarily idled, workers will continue to be compensated, according to company officials.

A spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 222, which represents hourly workers at the plant, offered support for the shutdown.

“We believe that in every meatpacking and food processing plant, the safety of the workers must come first,” UFCW spokesman Evan Yeats said in a statement. “We share Tyson’s concern for the safety of their workers and will continue to encourage them to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure our members’ safety.”

South Sioux City, Neb., Mayor Rod Koch also applauded the company’s decision.

“With that type of work, if they’re having a lot of positive tests out there, I think the leadership of Tyson is being responsible and getting in there and doing a deep cleaning, and then I’m sure they’ll have a game plan coming back to make sure everybody’s healthy that comes in that building,” Koch said. “And I think that speaks well to their commitment to the community, to make sure that place is safe.”

Tyson officials previously acknowledged some Dakota City workers had tested positive for the virus, but repeatedly refused to disclose a number of cases. State and county health officials also have refused to discuss any link to the plant and a spike in positive tests in the last two weeks.

“For some reason, Tyson is unwilling to share those numbers, which, to me, doesn’t make any sense,” Scott told CNN.

On Monday, Scott, Koch and three other area mayors called for greater transparency from state and county health officials about places contributing to the recent spike in local COVID-19 cases.

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The mayors also asked businesses to “take responsibility for any outbreak or spread” of the virus, publicly disclose any positive cases and release a detailed plan for reducing the spread of the virus.

Employers who fail to comply with those conditions should close “until such time a response plan is in place,” according to the statement, which also was signed by Sergeant Bluff Mayor Jon Winkel, North Sioux City Mayor Randy Fredericksen and Dakota City Mayor Jerry Yacevich.

The Dakota City facility, which is by far metro Sioux City’s largest employer, is the latest meat plant to temporarily close to contain the virus. Other shutdowns have included Tyson pork plants in Waterloo and Columbus Junction, Iowa, the Smithfield Foods pork plant in Sioux Falls, S.D., and the JBS USA pork plant in Worthington, Minn.

Meatpackers have struggled to contain the virus in the plants, where workers typically work side by side in production lines and often share crowded locker rooms and cafeterias.

On Tuesday, Seaboard Triumph Foods announced that 11 workers at the Sioux City pork plant had tested positive for COVID-19.

In an interview with the Journal on Wednesday before Tyson’s temporary closure announcement, Scott noted he had spoken with Tyson Fresh Meats President Steve Stouffer.

“I’m not going to pick on Tyson, because today we had Seaboard,” Scott said. “It could be Wells (Enterprises in Le Mars) tomorrow. It could be any of them.

“All I’m asking for and will continue to ask for is better information coming out of these plants and better information telling us what they’re doing to do their part to make sure we minimize the exposure. I think most people around here probably have gotten that message now.”

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Tyson noted it was one of the first food companies to start taking worker temperatures and has installed over 150 infrared temperature scanners in its facilities. The company said it also started efforts to secure a supply of facial coverings before the Centers for Disease Control recommended them and now requires and provides them for all employees.

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

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