JOHNSTON — Despite employees’ fears of scant worker protections and calls from local health officials and advocacy groups to temporarily shutter Tyson Fresh Meats in Waterloo in the wake of an outbreak of the novel coronavirus there, Gov. Kim Reynolds said Monday she has no plans to order Tyson to close, saying it was important to keep businesses in the food supply chain up and running.
Reynolds acknowledged that meatpacking workers, who often must stand shoulder to shoulder, are especially susceptible to contracting the coronavirus. But she said managers were taking steps to protect them.
At Iowa Premium in Tama, 177 out of more than 500 workers tested positive for the virus. The facility had been shuttered since April 10, but reopened Monday.
“We will continue to see clusters of positive cases in these types of facilities because COVID-19 spreads easily and quickly among people in close proximity, and once the virus is introduced into this type of an environment, it is very difficult to contain,” Reynolds said Monday during her daily briefing on the state’s response to the global pandemic. “But these also are essential businesses and an essential workforce, and without them people’s lives and our food supply will be impacted. So we must do our part to keep them open in a safe and responsible way.”
Outbreaks also have occurred at Tyson plants in Columbus Junction and Perry, and at a Smithfield Foods plant just across the border in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Unlike Waterloo, however, those plants have been temporarily idled — the Perry plant closed for a day, and the Columbus Junction plant is set to reopen Tuesday after being closed for two weeks.
“We plan to increase production at Columbus Junction gradually, with the safety of our team members top of mind,” Tyson Foods President Dean Banks said.
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Black Hawk County health officials last week broke with the state in classifying the coronavirus spread at the plant there as an “outbreak.”
Tyson has declined to release the number of its employees who have contracted the virus. State public health officials define an outbreak as confirmed cases in at least 10 percent of a business’ employees.
Twenty elected Black Hawk County officials, including mayors and legislators, have called on Tyson to temporarily close the Waterloo facility for deep cleaning and to allow for more testing.
Tyson so far has refused the calls and county officials have said Reynolds is the only person legally able to order the plant to close.
Reynolds Monday continued to praise state public health officials and leaders at food processing plants throughout the state for being “proactive” in their responses. But the current levels of testing employees and using mitigation efforts like masks, face shields and separating workers where possible ramped up after the outbreaks earlier this month. The virus was found in Iowa more than a month ago.
A coalition of Iowa unions that represents a total of 6,600 workers sent a letter to the governor asking her to tell the plants to slow the speed of production lines so workers could spread out, mandate workers wear face masks or other coverings and take steps to ensure the enforcement of worker safety standards.
“Workers in food processing plants are risking everything to ensure our communities can endure this crisis. If we don’t act immediately to keep these essential workers and the millions of consumers they serve safe, many lives and our food supply will be in grave danger,” five Iowa union leaders said in a joint statement.
One of the state’s largest unions, the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, echoed the call for more worker protections, standards and guidelines during the pandemic.
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“Lives are at risk. Workers are essential, but they are not expendable,” Charlie Wishman, the union’s secretary-treasurer, said in a statement. “If Iowa can lead the nation in producing and processing pork, there is no reason we can’t lead the nation in worker safety.”
Reynolds said she has been assured by plant leaders they are taking necessary precautions to limit the further spread of the virus through their facilities. She also said some plants are not operating at full capacity — indicating some production lines have slowed so workers can spread out more.
Four additional deaths were reported Monday by the state, bringing the total to 79. The deaths included two in Linn County, one of a resident between the age of 41 and 60 and one of a resident 81 or over; a Black Hawk County resident between 41 and 60; and a Mahaska County resident between 41 and 60. It marked the first death reported in Mahaska County because of the virus.
The state also confirmed 257 new cases, down from Sunday’s record high of 389. Many of the new cases are related to the food processing plant outbreaks.
Linn County reported 14 new cases for a total of 411, and Johnson County reported 18 new cases for a total of 311.
As of Sunday evening, 214 individuals in the state were hospitalized due to the virus. And state hospitals have more than 4,400 inpatient beds and nearly 700 ventilators available, with just 58 patients currently on ventilators.
Eastern Iowa continues to see the most number of cases. On the state public health department’s regional map, which is scaled 0-12 with 12 requiring the most heightened state response, the south central and southeast regions are rated 9 and the northeast region is rated 10.
John McGlothlen of The Gazette contributed to this report.
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