WATERLOO — Twenty elected officials, from mayors to state legislators, have called on Tyson Fresh Meats to close its Waterloo hog-processing plant temporarily to deal with a coronavirus outbreak there.
The letter asks Tyson, 501 N. Elk Run Road, to close for a time to disinfect the facilities and allow public health officials to catch up with an exponential increase in coronavirus cases officials say have spread inside.
As of Saturday, the plant remained open.
Black Hawk County Board of Supervisors chairman Chris Schwartz on Friday publicly read the letter asking Tyson to “voluntarily cease operations on a temporary basis.” Six signees attended the briefing.
“We do not make this ask lightly,” Schwartz read. “We understand the importance of this facility on our national food chain and the cascading effect that our requested closure would have on the supply network. However, we must all come together at this time to do what is best for the long-term safety and health of our community.”
Schwartz said the county has no legal standing to close the plant, noting if the county public health board orders a closure, the state could overrule it. He said only the governor has such power.
He said Gov. Kim Reynolds was notified of officials’ concerns Wednesday. During her briefing Friday, Reynolds said she doesn’t intend to force Tyson to close the plant.
Tyson spokesperson Liz Croston said Friday the company has no plans to close.
“We’re working diligently to keep our team members across the country safe and have been successfully collaborating with leaders in other plant communities in addressing COVID-19 concerns,” she said. “Our primary focus is protecting our people while continuing to fulfill our critical role of feeding families in this community and around the nation, while providing market continuity for hundreds of area hog farmers.”
The plant is Waterloo’s second-largest industrial employer behind John Deere with approximately 2,700 workers, according to surveys conducted by Grow Cedar Valley and the Iowa Manufacturer’s Association.
The elected officials who signed the letter included Schwartz and two other supervisors, Tom Little and Linda Laylin; Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson; the mayors of Waterloo, Cedar Falls, Dunkerton, Evansdale, Gilbertville, Hudson, La Porte City and Raymond; Waterloo City Council members Jonathan Grieder and Pat Morrissey; and the county’s six legislators serving in the Iowa House and Senate.
“We really just implore Tyson’s to be a good actor and to become a good partner in this — because right now it’s not been the case,” Schwartz said.
State Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, said Reynolds was incorrect to say the county was “ahead of the outbreak” at Tyson.
“I’m scared as hell for what this outbreak looks like for our community,” Smith said, asking the governor to provide more test kits and personal protective equipment for health care workers.
State Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, read several accounts of working conditions from Tyson employees he said were gathered from EMBARC, the Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center. Complaints include that hand sanitizer stations were being filled with water, temperatures were not being adequately checked and that residents of Columbus Junction — where a Tyson plant recently closed due to an outbreak — were testing positive for coronavirus in Black Hawk County.
“This is very troubling,” Dotzler said.
He said he’s also heard from “a lot of health care workers” whose spouses work at Tyson.
“Now you have a direct contact to our nursing facilities across Black Hawk County and the Cedar Valley that could spread into these facilities and affect our loved ones,” Dotzler said. “And we know what happens with the most vulnerable people in this state: You’re talking about increased deaths. Increased deaths, because we are not taking the steps necessary to protect the safety and health of our community.”
Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart said he appreciated the governor taking the situation seriously and sending thousands of extra test kits. But he implored Tyson to do the right thing.
“What we do now will forever echo in eternity,” he said. “Our goals are not to disrupt industry, or choose fights against partisan lines, but to make sure that we save every possible life.”
Separately Friday, U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer, D-Dubuque, sent letters to the USDA, U.S. Department of Labor and the Centers for Disease Control asking for enforceable safety standards, more testing and PPE for employees at all meat processing plants in Iowa.
“This week, I’ve heard from workers across my district facing dangerous conditions as they perform essential jobs in the middle of a deadly pandemic,” Finkenauer said in a release. “They need testing, personal protective equipment, and leave policies that put their health ahead of the bottom line. Employers also need resources and clarity on how to protect them.”
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