CORONAVIRUS

Tyson closes its largest beef plant after coronavirus outbreak

Report: 669 workers at the plant are infected so far

In a photo from 2012, workers trim beef at the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Dakota City. Plant owners say they have taken
In a photo from 2012, workers trim beef at the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Dakota City. Plant owners say they have taken steps to increase the distance between employees and installed screens between workstations. (Keith Myers/Kansas City Star)
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DAKOTA CITY, Neb. — Tyson Fresh Meats on Friday idled its largest beef processing plant for four days of deep cleaning after a surge of coronavirus cases in the area.

Health officials have reported hundreds of new coronavirus cases in both Nebraska’s Dakota County, where the plant is located, and Iowa’s nearby Woodbury County. With 4,300 workers, the plant is easily the Sioux City metro area’s largest employer.

While Tyson has declined to say how many of its workers there have been infected, the Sioux City Journal reported, citing a source familiar with the situation it did not name, that 669 workers so far have tested positive for COVID-19.

The Arkansas-based company said it was in the process of screening Dakota City employees for the virus this week with the help of the Nebraska National Guard.

The Dakota City facility is one of the largest beef processing plants in the country. The move follows recent temporary closures of other meat processing facilities due the coronavirus, which spreads rapidly among workers who often stand shoulder to shoulder on production lines.

Tyson also idled its largest pork facility in Waterloo, and a smaller plant in Columbus Junction after two workers died of the disease.

The closure also comes after President Donald Trump this week issued an executive order requiring meat processing plants to stay open during the crisis. The order was widely seen as giving processors protection from liability for workers who become sick on the job.

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The order followed a lawsuit accusing Virginia-based Smithfield Foods of not doing enough to protect employees at its plant in Milan, Mo.

Plant owners say they have been taking precautions, including screening employees before they start work, increasing distances between workers and installing shields between workstations.

The Journal reported that two metro area deaths from the virus were of Dakota City plant workers.

The 669 workers reported to be infected represent over 15 percent of the Dakota City workforce. It also accounts for about 40 percent of the total cases in Dakota and Woodbury counties.

While the plant is located in Nebraska, the majority of its workers live in the more populous Woodbury County, home to Sioux City.

All the Dakota County cases have been reported in just the last three weeks, after the Nebraska National Guard set up a mobile test site April 14 at the Dakota City Fire station.

Due to increased absenteeism over the last few weeks, Tyson said it has been forced to scale back production at Dakota City, which normally produces enough beef in one day to feed 18 million people.

The Associated Press and Dave Dreeszen and Mason Dockter of the Sioux City Journal contributed.\

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