Coronavirus forces meat plant to shut down

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The Smithfield pork processing plant in South Dakota will close will temporarily close for cleaning after over 80 employees were confirmed to have the coronavirus, the company announced Thursday.

Smithfield Foods plans to suspend operations in a large section of the Sioux Falls plant on Saturday, then completely close on Sunday and Monday. The company plans to sanitize the plant and install physical barriers to “enhance social distancing.” South Dakota health officials announced Wednesday that over 80 employees of the plant had tested positive for COVID-19, while the union representing workers said over 120 have confirmed infections.

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The plant, which employees about 3,700 people in the state’s largest city, has emerged as a hotspot of infections, accounting for at least 1 in 5 confirmed cases in South Dakota.

Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan said in a statement that the plant dishes out nearly 18 million servings of meat per day.

There has been no evidence that the coronavirus is being transmitted through food or its packaging, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Sullivan said the company is taking “the utmost precautions and actions to ensure the health and wellbeing of our employees – with an even increased emphasis on our critical role in the ongoing supply of food to American families.”

Smithfield said it would pay employees who were scheduled to work those days.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

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South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has been in communication with the company and appreciated its “decisive action,” according to her spokeswoman Maggie Seidel.

Other meat processing plants have also closed temporarily because of outbreaks of the coronavirus. For instance, Tyson Foods suspended operations at its pork processing plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, earlier this week after more than two dozen employees tested positive for COVID-19.

Tyson, Cargill and other major meat processing companies say they are taking a variety of precautions to keep workers safe, such as taking the temperature of everyone entering their plants, adding clear plexiglass shields between work stations and erecting tents for more lunchroom space so workers can spread out on breaks.