A meat-packing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, where a coronavirus outbreak exploded a few weeks ago, resumed operations on Thursday after a two-week closure.
The reopening of Tyson Foods' largest U.S. pork plant came the same day that health officials in Black Hawk County, where the plant is located, announced that 1,031 of the plant's estimated 2,800 employees have tested positive for the virus. That's higher than previous estimates by state officials.
Tony Thompson, sheriff of Black Hawk County, was among the public officials who called for the Waterloo facility to shut down temporarily. His call to close the plant came after he first toured the facility on April 10.
Thompson says that when he toured the plant then, he "fully expected" to see barriers, masks and other personal protective equipment in place. That wasn't the case.
"What I saw when we went into that plant was an absolute free-for-all," he says. "Some people were wearing bandannas. Some people were wearing surgical masks. .... Most people weren't wearing anything. People working on the line were working elbow to elbow, sometimes reaching over each other, processing the meat that was coming down the line.
"There was absolutely no opportunity for social distancing," he says. "We left the plant thinking, 'oh, my gosh, we've got a huge problem here.'"
Health officials say 90% of the cases of coronavirus in the county are linked to the Tyson facility.
During the closure, Tyson installed clear plastic mats to divide workstations and hand sanitizing stations. The plant has also instituted temperature checks and provides workers with surgical masks when they arrive and when they leave.
After touring the facility last week, Thompson is in cautious support of the reopening, saying he feels "reserved encouragement" after seeing the new safety measures.
If, however, the outbreak continues at this facility, Thompson says he would support a second shutdown.
Thompson's primary focus is on the safety and security of the roughly 131,000 citizens of Black Hawk County — and he says he feels especially responsible for the Tyson workers.
"We like our bacon, but we don't want to think about how it's actually done. When you got a carcass hanging there, bleeding on the floor, you don't want to think about that ... a byproduct of that is the people that actually do that work," he says.
"Unfortunately, these are oftentimes marginalized citizens because they are refugees, because they don't speak English, because they do a job that not many people want to do," he continues. "So there's something inherent there that was not right that I hope that they have corrected. And I'll hold my breath and pray that that is true. If it's not, we'll back up, regroup and go at this again."
Listen to the full interview with NPR's Ailsa Chang at the audio link above.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Some of the biggest outbreaks of the coronavirus in the U.S. have happened at meatpacking plants, like the Tyson Foods pork plant in Waterloo, Iowa.
TONY THOMPSON: When I went in, I fully expected to see barriers and masks and certain levels of PPE being used. And what I saw when we went into that plant was an absolute free-for-all.
CHANG: Tony Thompson is the sheriff of Black Hawk County in Iowa. Waterloo is in his county, and his office had spent weeks preaching social distancing in the media. But they kept getting calls complaining about Tyson, so he toured the plant on April 10.
THOMPSON: We left the plant thinking, oh, my gosh, we've got a huge problem here.
CHANG: By then, the coronavirus was already sweeping through the employees. Public officials, including Thompson, called for the plant to close to make safety improvements before reopening. And that reopening happened yesterday. Also yesterday, the county public health department announced that more than 1,000 workers at that plant had tested positive for COVID-19.
Sheriff Thompson toured the plant again last week and now cautiously supports its reopening. I spoke to him today and asked him what he saw on the new tour that made him feel better about workers' safety.
THOMPSON: There were a ton of fabrication, aluminum-welded rails that allow for plastic mats to be hung in between the workstations. Now, the workstations aren't very big. I would suppose they're three feet apart. But there are now clear plastic mats in between those workstations. They temp in, so they take their temperature when they arrive. They receive a surgical procedure mask when they arrive. They also receive one when they leave. So if they're carpooling or whatever, they can have that as well.
THOMPSON: Outside or inside of every door, they have hand sanitizing stations. And it was pretty impressive to see both the quality of the work that was done but how quickly all of this work got done, too.
CHANG: And looking at those changes, you felt confident that employees could safely return to work at this plant.
THOMPSON: Well, again, I'm a dumb, knuckle-dragging cop. I...
THOMPSON: These are things that I would have expected to have seen on the 10 when I walked in there.
THOMPSON: I don't know anything about meat processing.
CHANG: But now do you feel confident that these workers are safe?
THOMPSON: I have commented that I have reserved encouragement. Obviously, our economy here in Iowa is agriculturally based. And the trickle-down impact of shutting that plant down has been enormous. That's not lost on me.
But my concern is not for the pigs. My concern is not for the farmers. My concern was for the citizens of Black Hawk County that were put unduly at risk because the No. 1 risk to them at this point was Tyson - the fact that Tyson was attributable to 90% of all positive cases coming out of that plant and then, from there, spreading throughout Black Hawk County because this is where they grocery shop, alongside of my family and alongside of the mayor's family and everyone else. We had to stem the tide.
CHANG: What happens if the outbreak continues at this particular facility?
THOMPSON: Then, I think, we call for round two of shutdown. We let Tyson know that whatever they did didn't work, that there's still more measures that need to be taken. My focus has nothing to do with the politics or the optics of any of this. My primary focus is on the safety and security of the 132,000 citizens that I'm charged to take care of.
CHANG: You know, President Trump has been urging meat plants to reopen quickly. Are you concerned that the president's messaging is pressuring some of these plants to just open too soon?
THOMPSON: Certainly - I think anytime you hear that message, you've got to recognize what the actual impact is. One of the things that I was frustrated on the 10 of April when I walked out of that plant was in myself. I think we have this societal blind spot about meatpacking plants simply because it's such a medieval kind of business. You know, we all like our pork chops. We like our bacon, but we don't want to think about how it's actually done.
THOMPSON: When you've got a carcass hanging there bleeding on the floor, you don't want to think about that. And vicarious to that or a byproduct of that is the people that actually do that work. And unfortunately, these are, oftentimes, marginalized citizens because they are refugees, because they don't speak English, because they don't - you know, they do a job that not many people want to do. It's not terribly glamorous. And I walked out of that plant on the 10 saying, Tony, you somehow failed this section of your population.
So there's something inherent there that was not right that I hope that they have corrected. And I'll hold my breath and pray that that is true. If it's not, we'll back up, regroup and go at this again.
CHANG: Well, I wish you and your county the absolute best of luck. Tony Thompson is the sheriff of Black Hawk County, Iowa. Thank you very much for joining us today.
THOMPSON: Thank you, Alisa. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.