Lexington Tyson Foods facility

Tents at Tyson were erected in mid-March at the Lexington, Nebraska beef processing plant to read employees’ temperatures with handheld infrared thermometers. After later installing an infrared walk-through scanner, officials relegated the tents to additional lunchroom space to encourage social distancing.

LEXINGTON, Neb. — Despite President Trump’s executive order April 28 that aims to keep meat processing plants in production, several plants in Nebraska are shutting the doors temporarily due to COVID-19.

Representatives of Cargill in Schuyler and Tyson Foods in Madison both announced May 4 that the plants would be closed for deep cleaning, with reopening dates to be determined upon results of COVID-19 testing among employees at the Tyson plant. Cargill officials indicated a potential reopening date in Schuyler of Monday, May 18.

The temporary closures follow last week’s measure by Tyson Fresh Meats to contain coronavirus spread within its Dakota City beef plant, which was closed May 1 for deep cleaning. So far, three employees of Tyson’s Dakota City plant have died after contracting coronavirus.

The facility’s scheduled reopening of May 5 was postponed, and as of press time Wednesday, representatives had not announced a new date to resume production.

As fear grows regarding a disruption in the food supply chain, other Nebraska counties that are home to processing plants are grappling to control outbreaks as COVID-19 cases swell. The rate of infection around processing plants is higher than those of 75% of other U.S. counties, according to a joint study by USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigate Journalism.

Aside from Dawson and Dakota counties where Tyson plants are located, COVID-19 hotspots have also emerged in Hall County — the site of JBS’s beef plant — and Saline County, the location of Smithfield’s pork plant.

As of May 5, these four counties represented about 37% of the 6,083 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Nebraska.

Jeremy Eschilman, director of Two Rivers Public Health Department, said they saw an increase in COVID-19 cases and called in the Nebraska National Guard to help test people in Lexington and Grand Island. At of end of day April 30, there had been 844 tested in Lexington, with 424 COVID-19-positive cases in Dawson County and the county’s first death.

Many processing plant employees around the state have voiced fear of their work environments and worry that not enough is being done to keep them safe. Fifty employees at the Smithfield plant in Crete, Nebraska walked off the job April 28, after officials announced the pork processing plant would remain open despite an earlier statement that it would close to prevent further infection. The workers later came back.

“I’m very worried about bringing it home to my family, but I have no choice but to go to work,” said an employee who asked not to be named.

“We work shoulder to shoulder at Tyson, and in my opinion, I think half of Lexington has it,” said another employee, who requested anonymity. “Most of my friends on Facebook or who have been tested have it.”

Some processing plant employees have voiced objection to what they characterized as a “lack of transparency” from management at the Tyson facility in Lexington. Tyson, to date, has not disclosed the number of employees who have tested positive for COVID-19.

According to Tyson Foods communications manager Morgan Watchous, who works out of the headquarters in Arkansas, company plants are notifying anyone who has been in close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19.

“We also inform team members who have not been exposed and provide information to our supervisors so they can help answer questions,” Watchous said.

But some employees said the communication isn’t reaching all team members.

“We figure out who has tested positive when someone doesn’t show back up for work for several days,” an anonymous source said.

Lexington’s Tyson plant started to implement safety protocol March 25 with handheld infrared thermometers to take all employees’ temperatures read as they entered the facility. Now, according to employees, an infrared walk-through temperature scanner replaced the handheld devices in mid-April.

On April 14, all team members were required to wear masks. They were in short supply for the first week, an employee said, but now there are plenty of masks.

Watchous said they are installing work station dividers and providing more break room space at all of their locations.

“In addition to practicing social distancing, we’re doing additional deep cleaning and sanitizing daily at our facilities,” she said. “We also relaxed our attendance policy in March to encourage workers to stay at home when they’re sick.”

The workers’ station dividers and the deep cleaning were confirmed by several Tyson workers. They believe the cleaning crew has been fogging the locker rooms and office areas about every three days.

But even with a relaxed attendance policy, some Lexington plant employees said they still feel pressured to work.

“It’s rumored that positive-COVID-19 people are working because they need the money,” one anonymous employee said.

For weeks, Gov. Pete Ricketts has urged meatpacking plants to stay open. In his news briefing April 24, Ricketts reassured Nebraskans that food processors were taking appropriate action to control the spread of the virus.

“It’s vital to keep food processing plants open as an important link in the nation’s food supply chain,” Ricketts said. “Blocking that supply of food could lead to ‘civil unrest.’”

“I understand there could be a meat shortage but saying goodbye to a steak or hamburger is not like saying goodbye to your grandma, grandpa or a child,” a Tyson employee said. “What is the easier option?”

In a release dated May 1, the CDC reported COVID-19 cases were confirmed at 115 meat processing plants in 19 states via data collected April 9-27.

In Nebraska, 12 processing plants that employ a total of nearly 20,000 people had confirmed COVID-19 cases. Nebraska was third on the list, with Georgia reporting COVID-19 cases at 14 facilities, and Pennsylvania, 22.

“Initially, our concern was long-term care facilities,” Nebraska’s chief medical officer Dr. Gary Anthone said recently on a Facebook live video. “If there’s one thing that might keep me up at night, it’s the meat processing plants and manufacturing plants.”

Rebecca Chaney can be reached at editorial@midwestmessenger.com.