CORONAVIRUS

Meatpackers cautiously reopen plants amid coronavirus fears

But Tyson delays reopening its beef plant in Sioux City area

Tyson Fresh Meats on North Elk Run Road in Waterloo. (Jeff Reinitz, Waterloo Courier)
Tyson Fresh Meats on North Elk Run Road in Waterloo. (Jeff Reinitz, Waterloo Courier)

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

Employees reporting for work in Smithfield Foods’ ground pork department filed through a tent where they were screened for fever and other signs of COVID-19.

Some said they felt the measures Smithfield has taken would protect them from another virus outbreak, while others were not confident that infections could be halted in a crowded plant.

Lydia Toby said she was “kind of worried” as she entered the plant before 6 a.m. for her first shift in over two weeks. Managers met employees 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,” Toby 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 plant in Logansport, Ind., where nearly 900 employees tested positive. And the JBS pork plant in Worthington, Minn., just an hour east of Smithfield’s South Dakota plant, planned a partial reopening Wednesday.

But Tyson also said it would delay bringing its largest beef plant back online, according to a report Monday by the Sioux City Journal.

The plant in Dakota City, Neb., is the Sioux City metro area’s largest employer. Initially, Tyson said the plant would close for four days of deep cleaning. But Monday, the company said that COVID-19 tests of employees were still being processed.

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And another Tyson plant — its largest pork processing plant, in Waterloo — remains idle.

Virginia-based Smithfield is offering COVID-19 testing to all employees and their family members, according to a text message sent to employees. The message told employees to report to a local high school.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem said employees aren’t required to undergo tests before returning to work, though it’s strongly encouraged. Noem’s health commissioner, Kim Malsam-Rysdon, said it was Smithfield’s decision to make the tests optional.

Smithfield didn’t respond to requests for comment.

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

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

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

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report Friday said more than 4,900 workers at meat and poultry processing facilities have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, including 20 who died. Not all states provided data.

The CDC researchers cited risks including difficulties with physical distancing and hygiene, and crowded living and transportation conditions. They suggested enhanced disinfection and that workers get regular screening for the virus, more space from co-workers and training materials in their native languages. Many meatpacking employees are immigrants; a CDC report on the Smithfield outbreak found employees there spoke about 40 different languages.

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The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents most beef and pork workers and about one-third of poultry workers nationwide, has called for stricter measures than the CDC’s, including mandating that workers be spaced 6 feet apart on production lines. It has appealed to governors for help enforcing worker safety rules.

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.

Tyson Foods reported record meat sales in the first quarter but warned investors it faces production slowdowns. Company officials said it expected lower productivity “in the short term until local infection rates begin to decrease.”

Zach Medhaug, a maintenance employee at Tyson’s pork plant in Waterloo, said he will feel comfortable returning to work when the plant reopens, even as he fears that one of his closest colleagues may soon die from the coronavirus.

Jose Ayala, 44, is in critical condition on a ventilator at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics after catching the virus a month ago. Medhaug has been calling Ayala, who is medically paralyzed but may still be able to hear, and encouraging him.

Medhaug tested positive himself for the coronavirus April 20. He said he had mild symptoms and expects to return to work later this week at the plant, which suspended production April 22. Medhaug said Tyson has made key safety changes, such as vowing to enforce rather than just encourage social distancing and providing employees with masks instead of telling them to bring their own.

“That’s a huge step,” he said. “The people returning, I see them having a better chance of not getting it at all.”

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

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