IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Gov. Kim Reynolds said Monday that Iowa’s meatpacking plants must stay open despite coronavirus outbreaks that have sickened hundreds of workers, saying that shutting them down would be devastating for farmers and the nation’s food supply.
Reynolds said at a news conference that the virus spreads quickly and easily at the plants because so many workers are in close proximity, acknowledging “we will continue to see clusters of positive cases” in them.
“But these are also essential businesses and an essential workforce,” she said. “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.”
Coronavirus outbreaks at Tyson Foods pork plants in Columbus Junction and Waterloo and a National Beef plant in Tama have contributed to a surge in positive cases in Iowa in recent days.
Two-thirds of the 389 new cases announced by the state Sunday, by far a one-day record, were from National Beef and Tyson employees. Other plants across the state, from Marshalltown and Perry, have confirmed cases as well.
The number of coronavirus patients hospitalized statewide has skyrocketed in recent days to 214, and deaths have climbed to 79.
The Tama beef plant resumed production Monday after a two-week shutdown, employees said, despite the news that 177 workers out of more than 500 tested were positive.
Tyson Foods also said that its pork plant in Waterloo remained open, defying pleas from the mayor and other officials to temporarily close for cleaning and additional testing of workers.
Coronavirus cases in Black Hawk County have doubled in recent days to 356, with 90 percent of them traced to Tyson plant workers, said public health director Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye. The county reported two more deaths on Monday.
Tyson Foods said a two-week shutdown at its Columbus Junction pork plant, where at least 148 workers have tested positive and two have died, remained in place. Its plant in Perry, Iowa closed Monday for a one-day cleaning, a spokeswoman said.
Reynolds said that she doesn’t have plans to use her emergency powers to temporarily close plants. She noted that Iowa produces about one-third of the nation’s pork and said the state’s most important objective was “keeping that food supply chain moving.”
If hogs are unable to be processed, farmers may “have to be talking about euthanizing” them, the governor said. “We’re not that far from it and it will be devastating not only for the food supply but for the cost of food moving forward,” she said.
The governor said state officials would respond quickly to cases at the plants by making tests available and working to isolate those sick and potentially exposed. The state is also helping plants make plans to operate at partial capacity when workers refuse to show up or stay home sick, she said.
The governor’s comments outraged state Sen. Bill Dotzler, a Waterloo Democrat who has called for the state to conduct immediate worker safety inspections and enforce stricter rules at the plants. He has alleged that Tyson’s plant is endangering workers and the broader Waterloo community with little oversight from the state.
“Before I’m going to worry about hogs, I’m going to worry about the deaths here in Black Hawk County because I think people are more important,” Dotzler said. “It’s sickening.”
Dotzler said many of the workers are refugees who do not speak English and have few other employment options. Still, hundreds of Waterloo’s roughly 3,000 workers have stayed home in recent days.
Latinos and Hispanics account for 19.6 percent of Iowa’s confirmed coronavirus cases — more than three times their share of the state’s population, data show. Blacks comprise 11 percent of the cases compared to 4 percent of Iowa residents.