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UPDATE: Waterloo mayor responds to Tyson closing Waterloo plant

UPDATE: Waterloo mayor responds to Tyson closing Waterloo plant

From the Coronavirus update Northeast Iowa series

WATERLOO – Following criticism from public health officials over coronavirus concerns, Tyson Foods on Wednesday announced the closing of its meatpacking plant in Waterloo.

“Despite our continued efforts to keep our people safe while fulfilling our critical role of feeding American families, the combination of worker absenteeism, COVID-19 cases and community concerns has resulted in our decision to stop production,” Steve Stouffer, group president of Tyson Fresh Meats, said in a prepared statement.

The Waterloo facility, which is the company’s largest pork plant, had been running reduced production because of worker absenteeism, officials said.

Officials said Wednesday they will “stop production mid-week until further notice.”

“This is the action we have been waiting for,” said Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart. “Now we must do everything we can to make sure testing and support are in place and personal precautions are maintained. The virus is here. We must all do what we can to contain it.”

Hart said three of the city’s firefighters and one Waterloo Police officer have tested positive for coronavirus as well.

“We are already seeing the impact on our emergency response personnel,” Hart said. “Yes, I am pleased that Tyson has closed for now, but this is just one piece of the puzzle. Tyson’s closing their plant will prove to be a positive step forward in preparing our community for the flattening the curve.”

The company said its 2,800 employees will be invited to come to the plant later in the week for COVID-19 testing.

Workers will continue to be compensated while the plant is closed, officials said. Reopening will depend on the outcome of testing and other factors, officials said.

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Stouffer said the closure will have far-reaching effects.

“The closure has significant ramifications beyond our company, since the plant is part of a larger supply chain that includes hundreds of independent farmers, truckers, distributors and customers, including grocers,” Stouffer said. “It means the loss of a vital market outlet for farmers and further contributes to the disruption of the nation’s pork supply.”

Company officials said Tyson has been focused on COVID-19 since January when it formed a company coronavirus task force. It was one of the first food companies to start taking worker temperatures, and the company started efforts to obtain protective face coverings before the Centers for Disease Control recommendations, the safety measures are now required in all facilities, company officials said. The Waterloo plant also installed workstation dividers and are providing more breakroom space.

But local officials said the plant hadn’t done enough. More than 180 workers have tested positive, according to county health officials. One worked died of COVID-related complications, according to friends.

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Wednesday’s announcement came after officials with the Black Hawk County Board of Supervisors, the County Board of Health and other agencies urged the plant to voluntary close or Gov. Kim Reynolds to order the closure to allow for cleaning, testing and implementation of measures to combat the spread of infection at the plant.

Democratic state lawmakers also filed a complaint through Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration against the plant, alleging a failure to take protective measures after learning a worker tested positive.

Reynolds declined to order the closure, citing concerns over keeping the food supply chain running.

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