Meat Companies Want to Reopen, But Officials Fear New Wave of Coronavirus Infections

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President Trump’s executive order allowing meatpacking plants to continue operating through the coronavirus pandemic is stirring concerns among local officials, wary of new spikes in infection rates if closed plants rush to reopen.

Since the beginning of the month, meat giants including Tyson Foods Inc., TSN -2.54% Smithfield Foods Inc., JBS USA Holdings Inc. and Cargill Inc. have closed more than a dozen major U.S. pork, beef and chicken processing plants. Those closures have plunged the food system into disarray, forcing supermarket chains to brace for meat shortages, and backing up slaughter-ready livestock on farms.

Some city and local health officials said that temporarily closing plants, where hundreds of workers stand shoulder-to-shoulder cutting meat for hours at a time, helped curb the virus’ advance, though at a sometimes heavy cost to local economies. Reopening before Covid-19 is under control risks another surge in infections, they said.

“If they reopen it will continue to spread,” said Jenna Link, health department administrator for Warren County, Ill., where Smithfield this week closed a pork plant linked to some of the rural county’s 57 cases. “No one has been able to stop this virus.”

While meat companies say the closures were voluntary, many of them followed calls from mayors and local health authorities.

Mr. Trump’s directive, issued Tuesday , invokes a Korean War-era law to shift authority over meat plant operations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The move shields meat companies from the pressure that city, county and state leaders have put on some meat plants this month to shut down after rising infection rates.

About 20 meat- and food-processing workers have died because of Covid-19, and about 5,000 more have been hospitalized or are showing symptoms, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in an interview that the president’s order safeguards America’s food system, and that federal health and work safety guidelines will ensure that meatpackers reopen plants with minimal risk of new outbreaks.

“I would hope these local communities are truly altruistic in their desire to feed America,” Mr. Perdue said. “I know these companies are, and want to get back open.” – READ MORE

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