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Reopening meat plants amid coronavirus a 'huge step backwards': Iowa mayor

One government official is calling the decision to reopen meat plants a “huge step backwards” as nearly all coronavirus cases in his area are tied to the local Tyson meat plant.

Meat producers and officials have sounded the alarm after President Trump signed an executive order last week ordering meat plants to open, citing the Defense Production Act and classifying meat plants as “essential infrastructure.”

“To force meatpacking plants or essential businesses to open when they've made the responsible move and deemed their facilities maybe a public health risk... I think that's a huge step backwards,” said Waterloo, Iowa, Mayor Quentin Hart. 

“Pro-business needs to be pro-workforce. And to be pro-workforce means that we have to be pro-public health as well,” he told Yahoo Finance.

Tyson’s Waterloo plant is the company’s largest.

According to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, roughly 20 people working in meatpacking and food processing have died from COVID-19, while 5,000 have been directly impacted. 

Vehicles sit in a near empty parking lot outside the Tyson Foods plant, Friday, May 1, 2020, in Waterloo, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Because of the outbreak, meat processing has been seriously affected. But despite the president’s order, meat producers haven’t been able to reach full capacity.

“In the current environment, we see strong demand and ample supply of hogs, but reduced industry processing capacity of nearly 50% due to COVID-19 has pressured the supply chain and dramatically reduced overall profitability,” said Tyson (TSN) President Dean Banks on an investor call on Monday. 

That might change soon if plants like Tyson’s are able to reopen in the coming days and weeks.

In speaking with Yahoo Finance, Hart said that he did a walk-through at the plant last month and that there were “serious concerns about worker safety and mitigation efforts.”

But in a recent meeting between the mayor and Tyson executives, there were discussions around reopening the plant and mitigating risks.

“They laid out a phased plan about worker safety,” Hart said. “From temperature screenings to mitigation controls to testing for workers to dividers to sanitizing and procedural change to masks and other PPE, and overall communication that they'll have with workers.”

“They're not opening up right now, until all the testing is done and they can see exactly what they have... and so that they can continue ahead to implement these safety factors,” he said. 

Hart said he was pleased to see Tyson executives take a stand against presidential pressure to reopen too soon.  

“You can push and force people to go all back to work as much as you want to. But when you are missing 30%, 35%, 40% of your workforce, that has an impact on your overall work production,” said Hart.

A Tyson Fresh Meats plant employee leaves the plant, Thursday, April 23, 2020, in Logansport, Ind. The plant will temporarily close its meatpacking plant in north-central Indiana after several employees tested positive for COVID-19. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Ultimately, it all comes down to worker protection. “So before they open, we are going to be on one accord, because this is about trust,” he said. “This is about people. This is about the incredible workforce that we have and keeping them protected.”

But Hart also emphasized the need to protect workers at other businesses as well, as Iowa’s Republican Governor Kim Reynolds announced plans to partially reopen the state.

“The same amount of pressure that we're putting on workers to go back to work is the same amount of pressure legally that needs to be placed on businesses to put in protective measures to mitigate the spread and protect workers.”