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Tyson's Largest Pork Plant Reopens As Tests Show Surge In Coronavirus Cases

Vehicles sit in a near empty parking lot outside the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa, on May 1.
Charlie Neibergall
Vehicles sit in a near empty parking lot outside the Tyson Foods plant in Waterloo, Iowa, on May 1.

A meat-packing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, where a coronavirus outbreak exploded a few weeks ago, resumed operations on Thursday after a two-week closure.

The reopening of Tyson Foods' largest U.S. pork plant came the same day that health officials in Black Hawk County, where the plant is located, announced that 1,031 of the plant's estimated 2,800 employees have tested positive for the virus. That's higher than previous estimates by state officials.

Tony Thompson, sheriff of Black Hawk County, was among the public officials who called for the Waterloo facility to shut down temporarily. His call to close the plant came after he first toured the facility on April 10.

Thompson says that when he toured the plant then, he "fully expected" to see barriers, masks and other personal protective equipment in place. That wasn't the case.

"What I saw when we went into that plant was an absolute free-for-all," he says. "Some people were wearing bandannas. Some people were wearing surgical masks. .... Most people weren't wearing anything. People working on the line were working elbow to elbow, sometimes reaching over each other, processing the meat that was coming down the line.

"There was absolutely no opportunity for social distancing," he says. "We left the plant thinking, 'oh, my gosh, we've got a huge problem here.'"

Health officials say 90% of the cases of coronavirus in the county are linked to the Tyson facility.

During the closure, Tyson installed clear plastic mats to divide workstations and hand sanitizing stations. The plant has also instituted temperature checks and provides workers with surgical masks when they arrive and when they leave.

After touring the facility last week, Thompson is in cautious support of the reopening, saying he feels "reserved encouragement" after seeing the new safety measures.

If, however, the outbreak continues at this facility, Thompson says he would support a second shutdown.

Thompson's primary focus is on the safety and security of the roughly 131,000 citizens of Black Hawk County — and he says he feels especially responsible for the Tyson workers.

"We like our bacon, but we don't want to think about how it's actually done. When you got a carcass hanging there, bleeding on the floor, you don't want to think about that ... a byproduct of that is the people that actually do that work," he says.

"Unfortunately, these are oftentimes marginalized citizens because they are refugees, because they don't speak English, because they do a job that not many people want to do," he continues. "So there's something inherent there that was not right that I hope that they have corrected. And I'll hold my breath and pray that that is true. If it's not, we'll back up, regroup and go at this again."

Listen to the full interview with NPR's Ailsa Chang at the audio link above.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
Maureen Pao is an editor, producer and reporter on NPR's Digital News team. In her current role, she is lead digital editor and producer for All Things Considered. Her primary responsibility is coordinating, producing and editing high-impact online components for complex, multipart show projects and host field reporting.