DES MOINES, Iowa — Gov. Kim Reynolds on Monday said she won't issue an executive order shutting down Iowa's meatpacking and food processing plants because they are essential businesses, even as COVID-19 cases at those facilities soar.
Reynolds said the 18 plants statewide need to remain open in a "safe and responsible way."
"We will continue to see clusters of positive cases in these the facilities because COVID-19 spreads quickly and easily among people in close proximity and once the virus enters that environment it's very difficult to contain," Reynolds said during a Monday news conference. "But these are also essential businesses and essential workforce and without them people’s lives and our food supply will be impacted."
Reynolds announced 257 new positive cases and four more deaths, bringing the confirmed state total to 3,159 infections and 79 deaths. 47 cases reported Monday are linked meat processing sites.
Cases in these food processing plants continue to rise and some plants are open despite concern. Reynolds, when asked about issuing an executive order closing the facilities, said that she has communicated with the companies' management about what steps they are taking to protect their workers.
"They have been complying," Reynolds said. "We continue to partner with them and so I don't believe it's going to take an executive order at this time. We're going to continue to work with the plants and be proactive."
On Sunday, the state saw its highest single-day spike at 389 cases, with 67% of the reported cases linked to employees at meat processing plants. State officials say this is due to scaled-up "surveillance testing" at these facilities, which means testing employees even if they are showing mild illness or no symptoms. The governor's office said Sunday they tested 500 Tyson employees and 500 National Beef workers.
State officials are also sending "strike" teams made up of an epidemiologist, an infectious disease nurse and other personnel to advise on disease protection, implement surveillance testing, and facilitate contact tracing to track down who else might be infected. Sarah Reisetter, deputy director for the Iowa Department of Public Health, said they are also sending strike to long-term care facilities, which have 10 reported outbreaks to date.
The Iowa Premium Plant in Tama, owned by National Beef which had been closed since April 10, resumed production again Monday—even after the governor's office on Sunday announced 177 more employees tested positive.
The Tyson Foods plant in Columbus Junction, site of an outbreak and cause for major surge in Louisa County cases, remains closed. There are at least 200 infections there.
But a Tyson plant in Waterloo is open, despite reported cases, outcry from local officials and a formal complaint by state lawmakers about work conditions at the plant.
Gov. Kim Reynolds called the facility the site of a "suspected" outbreak, but state guidance is that businesses report to the state when 10% or more of employees reporting ill or absent.
"If they were at a 10% threshold of absenteeism or confirmed cases, that us understand where outbreak may be occurring in our state," said Reisetter on Monday.
"We need immediate action from Governor Reynolds and Tyson to stop the outbreak in our community, protect workers, and save lives,” said Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, who filed the complaint to Iowa OSHA. “The longer they wait, the worse the destruction in our community will be.”
Workers have anonymously reported that they fear for their safety. During a Monday afternoon news conference, Black Hawk County public health officials said 90% of the county's new cases are related to a spike in cases there and that there are at least 151 confirmed cases.
"We are still backlogged in terms of our investigation, but we know the bulk of it are Tyson related," said Dr. Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye, Black County public health director, adding that the state sent 1,500 tests to the county.
Reynolds stressed the importance of keeping the plants open "even at 50% capacity," cautioning prices could increase if plants shut down entirely.
“This isn’t like a regular facility where you shut it down for two weeks,” Reynolds said. "We have farmers that are raising hogs...if we aren’t able to move them through the process, at some point we’re going to have to be talking about euthanizing hogs and we’re not that far from it and it would be devastating to not only the food supply, but the cost of food going forward."
Another Tyson plant in Perry is shuttered Monday for a single-day deep clean after reported cases at that facility.