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More than 50 workers have tested positive for COVID-19 at a single farm in Coldwater

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More than 50 workers at a farm in Coldwater are under quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19.

The outbreak happened at Maroa Farms, which has massive greenhouses where it grows peppers and tomatoes that are sold in stores under the Sunset brand.
Many of the workers are temporary foreign workers, brought in under the H-2A temporary visa program.

Maroa Farms says it has 2.2 million square feet of greenhouse space – the equivalent of about 38 football fields.

“Based on how they work in the fields – and they’re pretty separated one apart from another – it seems most likely that transmission occurred in the housing,” says Rebecca Burns, a health officer with the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency.

The agency issued a joint statement earlier this week along with Maroa Farms to describe the precautions that been taken at the farm.

According to the statement, the farm had been screening workers daily, ensuring social distancing and sanitizing the housing units every day.

Farmworker advocates have been warning about the possibility of outbreaks at housing camps because the camps often house many workers in shared spaces.

In part because of those warnings, Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued anexecutive order spelling out the precautions farms and camp operators must take to try to stop the spread of coronavirus.

The order requires farms or camp operators to separate beds by at least six feet, and encourage workers to sleep head-to-toe in bunk beds. It also requires farms to isolate workers who are suspected of having coronavirus.

Farmworker housing camps are regulated by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The department provided Michigan Radio with copies of the licenses issued to Maroa Farms to operate three housing camps this year, with a capacity of 308 total occupants.

MDARD says its inspectors visited the camps at Maroa Farms earlier this week, and determined they were in compliance with the executive order.

"It appears to be contained," says Rebecca Burns, an officer with the local healthy agency.

“The Department’s review of their plan under EO 2020-111 found a comprehensive and extensive plan, as well their implementation of that plan, including testing and isolation of workers,” said Jim Johnson, head of MDARD’s Environmental Stewardship division, in a statement to Michigan Radio.

The department says it’s continuing to work with Maroa Farms to ensure there’s enough housing for the workers currently in isolation.

The farm says it’s been providing food to the workers on site, and that workers had not been out in the community.

“Individuals have been isolated together that are positive and away from others, and they’re bringing food in to feed those folks,” says Burns.  “So it appears to be contained.”

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Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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