WATERLOO, Iowa – Tyson Foods is closing its largest pork plant as a growing number of workers become ill from coronavirus infections.
The plant, located in Waterloo, Iowa, had already slowed production because many of its 2,800 workers had been calling out sick. The Black Hawk County Health Department linked the Tyson plant to 182 of the county’s 374 Covid-19 cases.
Last week, Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart called for the Tyson facility to be shut down.
Those were all factors in Tyson's decision Wednesday to indefinitely stop production at the Waterloo facility this week. The company will continue paying its employees while the facility is closed, and the plant's 2,800 staff members will be invited to take Covid-19 tests later this week. The plant's reopening will depend on a number of factors, including the outcome of the tests, the company said.
Later on Wednesday, Tyson announced it will also close another pork plant in Logansport, Indiana, by the end of this week.
"Despite our continued efforts to keep our people safe while fulfilling our critical role of feeding American families, the combination of worker absenteeism, Covid-19 cases and community concerns has resulted in our decision to stop production," Tyson Fresh Meats group president Steve Stouffer said in a statement on the Waterloo facility.
Stouffer acknowledged that the plant's closure may add to the current disruption of the nation's pork supply chain, adding that the facility is "part of a larger supply chain that includes hundreds of independent farmers, truckers, distributors and customers, including grocers."
"The closure has significant ramifications beyond our company," he said.
The Logansport plant alone produces 3 million pounds of pork per day, and works with 250 independent farmers, the company said Wednesday.
Hart, the mayor, voiced his approval of the move during a Wednesday morning interview with CNN's Poppy Harlow, arguing the closure was necessary to potentially save lives.
"This is the action we have been waiting for," Hart said in a statement emailed to CNN Business. "Tyson's closing their plant will prove to be a positive step forward in preparing our community for the flattening the curve."
The mayor added that the plant's closure may have come too late to prevent the disease from spreading throughout his city, which he said went from 21 cases of Covid-19 on April 9 to about 380 cases on Tuesday.
Hart also noted that many of the plant's workers as well as essential workers across America are people of color who don't have the option to work from home amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"It hurts when it feels like your pleas to people falls on deaf ears," Hart said. "This isn't a political issue. ... It's a humanitarian issue."
The more than 2,200 workers from Tyson's Logansport facility will receive coronavirus testing, which the company said could begin as soon as Thursday. The plant had closed for the day on Monday for deep cleaning, and has since been running at limited capacity.
"We're aware that while employees are practicing protective measures at work, they may not be practicing it at home which is critical to help stop overall community spread," said Dori Ditty, the health officer for the Cass County Health Department, which is working with Tyson to test the Logansport plant workers.
Earlier this month, Tyson shut down operations at its Columbus Junction, Iowa, pork plant after more than 24 workers there became infected with Covid-19. The company said it would divert livestock headed to other pork plants in the region to minimize the impact on its production.
Smithfield Foods also shut down its Sioux Falls, South Dakota, plant last week after a coronavirus outbreak there. The Smithfield plant employs about 3,700 people and normally produces 4% to 5% of the country's pork supply, according to the company.
On April 12, Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan said the Sioux Falls plant's closure puts the country's meat supply at risk.
“It is impossible to keep our grocery stores stocked if our plants are not running,” he said. “These facility closures will also have severe, perhaps disastrous, repercussions for many in the supply chain.”