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Workers cheered as they enter South Dakota pork plant

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Employees at a Smithfield pork processing plant in South Dakota where a coronavirus outbreak infected over 800 people were greeted at work Wednesday with thank you signs, cheers and waves from about a dozen area residents.

“They're putting their health at risk just like the hospital workers are to continue on with this work, so I hope they feel appreciated,” said Becky Olson, a Sioux Falls resident who held a sign outside Smithfield's entrance.

The plant has instructed many workers to return to work this week as it looks to scale up operations by the end of the month. Masked employees streamed into the factory entrance as trucks carrying pigs rumbled past.

Smithfield employees have faced stigmatization and anxiety even after the plant temporarily shuttered. A sign on the door of a local bar asked the plant’s employees not to come inside, and one employee has had had panic attacks as she prepared to go back to work, said Nancy Reynoza, who runs a Latino advocacy organization called ¿Que Pasa? Sioux Falls.

Some community advocates said the thank-you parade, while appreciated, doesn’t provide meaningful help for the immigrant communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the outbreak at Smithfield.

The Smithfield plant, which produces roughly 5% of the nation's pork supply, gave an early warning of how quickly the virus can spread in meatpacking plants that are key to the nation's food supply. Two employees at the plant have died from COVID-19, along with more than 20 meat and poultry workers nationwide.

Dave Tesphay, an employee who was reporting to work on Wednesday, said that with the pandemic "it was really scary at first.”

Smithfield shut the plant down for three weeks and has installed plexiglass barriers between work stations to prevent infections from spreading. The company is also spreading employees at least 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart when possible.

Tesphay said the plant's closure and safety measures gave him confidence to return. The people who showed up to cheer him on made him feel the community cared, he said.

The event was organized by a group of friends who wanted to give meatpacking workers, many who are immigrants, a show of support similar to what health care workers have received during the pandemic. Sioux Falls mayor Paul TenHaken also got behind the idea, saying he would show up to cheer during the day.