By Fathin Ungku and Wilda Asmarini
SINGAPORE, May 18 (Reuters) - Freeport-McMoRan Inc's Indonesian unit said it will operate the giant Grasberg mine with a "skeletal team" after a rise in coronavirus infections in the area, including at the mine workers' living quarters, and three deaths.
The move is aimed at ensuring workers at the world's biggest gold mine and second-biggest copper mine can socially distance effectively and avoid any further spread of the virus, which has infected 17,514 and killed 1,148 in Indonesia, a Freeport Indonesia spokesman said.
"We are trying to reduce the numbers of workers, reduce the population. We just have a skeletal team to run the mine," spokesman Riza Pratama told Reuters.
"For contractors whose projects have been delayed or postponed, we have returned their employees. We have also removed workers who are in the risk category," he said, adding that the changes have not affected the mine's output.
Pratama declined to say how many workers at the mine, which normally employs about 25,000 people, would be kept on to run the operation.
COVID-19 infections in the Mimika Regency, where Grasberg mine is located on Papua island, reached 150 cases as of Sunday, including 102 cases in Tambagapura, the living quarters built to house Grasberg's workers and their families. Three people in Mimika have died, official data showed.
Freeport did not disclose how many of the infected were workers, but said it had converted its on-site barracks into isolation wards for employees who had come into contact with infected persons.
Pratama declined to disclose the number of workers in isolation.
Elsewhere, Freeport has suspended operations at a copper mine in New Mexico because of the spread of COVID-19 among workers, while earlier this month, a factory run by the Indonesian unit of U.S. tobacco giant Philip Morris shut after 60 workers contracted the virus.
However, a closure for Grasberg is unlikely as the project needs to continue operating in order to minimise damage to the mine and danger to workers, Pratama said.
"If we don't maintain our mine ... it would be dangerous for our employees to work," he said.
Operations at Grasberg were affected in 2017 after thousands of workers staged a rally over layoffs by Freeport due to a contract dispute with the government.
But even then, Freeport continued to have a team of workers to maintain and operate the mine, Pratama said.
Freeport Indonesia last week said it has around 50,000 rapid and polymerase chain reaction test kits on site.
It has also shut on-site churches and mosques to prevent gatherings of large crowds and deployed a task force to ensure site cleanliness and prevent gatherings.
(Reporting by Fathin Ungku and Wilda Asmarini; Editing by Richard Pullin)