On April 28, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to ensure that workers at meat processing plants continue working throughout the ongoing coronavirus epidemic despite the crowded conditions that make such workplaces ripe for fresh COVID-19 outbreaks.
Tyson — one of the nation's largest producers and marketers of chicken, beef, and pork — said on Wednesday that 570 of the 2,244 employees at its Wilkesboro, North Carolina complex have contracted confirmed cases of COVID-19, the virus that has killed nearly 96,370 Americans nationwide so far.
Tyson says many of the workers were asymptomatic. "The company has seen similar massive outbreaks, in the hundreds of cases, at its meat processing plants in Pasco, Washington; Madison, Nebraska; and Waterloo, Iowa," VICE News writes.
The company has since closed two of the complex’s three processing plants to conduct a deep cleaning and has also placed the employees on paid leave as they remain in quarantine.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 5,000 meat plant workers across 19 states have tested positive for COVID-19. Smithfield, the largest pork producer in the United States, has also reported 783 coronavirus cases and two deaths among workers at its Sioux Falls, South Dakota plant.
While these cases and deaths occurred before Trump's executive order, they show just how dangerous meatpacking plants are for employees and their families. Crowded conveyer belt workspaces make it impossible to maintain 6 feet of social distancing and the cold air makes it easier for the coronavirus to stay active on surfaces.
The workers also tend to be low-wage, immigrants who live in crowded homes and take public transit, two factors which can increase a person's likelihood of contracting the virus.
On May 1, Jennifer McQuiston, a top CDC official, said 115 meat and processing facilities in 23 states have reported coronavirus cases. Trump's executive order allows the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to step in and force a meat plant to stay open even if a state government tries to shut it down as a public health hazard.