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A Utah meat plant is staying open even after 287 workers got coronavirus

Meatpacking facilities are known incubators for Covid-19. But they continue to operate because of an executive order from President Trump.

A cow crosses a road in Utah, where coronavirus tests are coming back positive with twice the frequency they were two weeks ago.
Joe Sohm/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

A single meat plant has been linked to hundreds of Covid-19 cases in Utah. Yet it remains open, and the company says it expects workers to keep showing up for shifts even though many protest that the conditions are unsafe.

It’s the latest example of a worrisome trend seen across the US during the pandemic: Meatpacking plants are coronavirus hot spots, where workers keep falling ill — and even dying — all in the name of satisfying America’s meat-supply obsession.

When the JBS beef plant in the city of Hyrum tested about 1,000 of its 1,400 workers on May 30, 287 tested positive. But instead of shutting down the plant to stop the outbreak, as some plants had done earlier in the pandemic, JBS told these employees to stay home but report back to work less than two weeks later, despite their Covid-19 diagnosis.

On Tuesday, some JBS employees staged a walkout from the Hyrum plant and protested in nearby Logan. “It’s not safe to work right now,” one worker told the Salt Lake Tribune, asking to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. Protesters said the plant should close for a few weeks and that employees who don’t go in due to safety concerns should be paid regardless of whether they are sick.

The employees, many of whom are immigrants, are not currently offered paid leave unless they’ve tested positive.

The Bear River Health Department, which oversees the area in which the plant is located, says it doesn’t have the authority to force a closure.

“We do not have the ability to close them down because of that executive order,” department spokesperson Josh Greer told the Tribune. “It’s under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.”

He was referring to President Donald Trump’s executive order, signed on April 28, which declared meat processing plants “critical infrastructure” that should stay open during the coronavirus crisis. Invoking the Defense Production Act, Trump said that plant closures “threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain.”

The results of this order are being seen across northern Utah, now the site of a worrisome spike in coronavirus cases. On May 28, just before JBS tested its workers, the Bear River Health District had only 117 confirmed cases. The number has since climbed to 837.

Officials in Utah say some of the increase is likely due to the reopening of the economy, but they attribute much of it to spread from the plant; the vast majority of the new cases are in the county where the plant is located.

Although the US Department of Agriculture has the authority to close the plant in Hyrum, it’s showing no interest in doing that. Instead, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue issued a statement Tuesday, saying, “I want to thank the patriotic and heroic meatpacking facility workers, the companies, and the local authorities for quickly getting their operations back up and running, and for providing a great meat selection once again to the millions of Americans who depend on them for food.”

But the JBS workers who protested that day said that if they are indeed patriotic and heroic, they ought to be treated that way. “We produce meat for everyone across the country. We deserve to be valued,” said Monique Ramos. “They are making it seem like money is more important than our lives.”

JBS spokesperson Nikki Richardson said the company does not want sick people coming to work. She defended the fact that some workers who tested positive May 30 were asked to return to work on June 10, saying that’s in line with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The guidelines say, “For persons recovered from COVID-19 illness, CDC recommends that isolation be maintained for at least 10 days after illness onset and at least 3 days (72 hours) after recovery” [italics in the original].

“Recovery” means that the person isn’t exhibiting symptoms. But some workers say they’ve been asked to keep working even when they are showing symptoms. One woman told the Tribune that she was experiencing fever, headache, and chills in late May. She informed her supervisor and asked to go home, but her request was denied. So she had no choice but to work her full shift, potentially infecting others in the process.

The outbreak coming out of the JBS plant is alarming because it show just how much harm can occur at a single meatpacking facility; one-third of all Utah’s new cases are linked to this plant, according to one estimate. It’s also alarming because it illustrates a larger trend: Since Trump ordered plants to stay open or reopen, infections have risen in counties near large meatpacking facilities at more than twice the national rate.

We already know these plants are coronavirus incubators, but because of federal policy, not much is being done to stop the spread.

More than 24,000 coronavirus cases have been linked to US meat plants

Laborers in meat plants have to work shoulder-to-shoulder along processing lines, which makes social distancing all but impossible. That’s a big part of why these facilities have become Covid-19 hot spots, even though some plants have implemented temperature checks and installed plastic barriers between workers.

It’s important to note that the problem is much, much bigger than one meat plant. As the Tribune explained:

JBS, based in Greeley, Colo., has had significant outbreaks at plants in Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Wisconsin, according to news outlets in each of those states. On May 27, Reuters reported a labor judge in Brazil ordered a JBS plant there to shut down until all the employees could be tested. The judge, the news agency reported, found more than 60 percent of all the infections in the municipality of São Miguel do Guaporé originated from that facility.

The problem is also much bigger than just JBS. Plants belonging to Smithfield, Tyson, and other major companies have become hot spots across the US.

At least 24,000 workers have tested positive and at least 86 have died, according to the tally of cases tied to meatpacking facilities published by USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. That tracks with the count published by the Food and Environment Reporting Network.

Some plants have been forced to close due to high rates of infection. At a Tyson plant in Waterloo, Iowa, more than 180 employees got sick. At a Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, it was more than 640 workers.

But the leaders of these giant companies, unhappy about shuttering plants, have pushed back. In late April, the chair of Tyson took out full-page ads in the New York Times and the Washington Post claiming that “the food supply chain is breaking.” And Smithfield’s CEO said plant closures are “pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply.”

Experts objected that these claims are unfounded, noting that US meat producers are still exporting meat and the industry has a surplus of meat in frozen storage.

Nevertheless, just days later, Trump signed his executive order.

The companies seem emboldened. Tyson, for example, is now reinstating an attendance policy that penalizes workers for missing shifts, despite new outbreaks at its Iowa plants.

Knowing that the country’s meat is being produced on the backs of laborers who are mistreated, Americans have to ask whether this is really a sacrifice worth making.

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