SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in South Dakota will temporarily close for cleaning after more than 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 Virginia-based company said it will sanitize the plant and install physical barriers to “enhance social distancing.”
South Dakota health officials have said more than 80 plant workers tested positive for COVID-19, while the union representing workers said more than 120 have confirmed infections.
The plant, which employees about 3,700 people in the state’s largest city, has emerged as a hotspot of infections, accounting for almost 30% of cases in Minnehaha County.
Smithfield Foods 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.
Other meat processing plants have also closed temporarily because of outbreaks of the coronavirus, including a Tyson Foods facility in Columbus Junction, Iowa, where more than two dozen employees tested positive.
Sullivan said Smithfield Foods 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.”
The company said it would pay employees who were scheduled to work those days.
Kooper Caraway, president of the Sioux Falls AFL-CIO, which organizes local unions, said the closure was a “step in the right direction,” and predicted Smithfield would have to shut down for cleaning several times during the global pandemic.
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.
South Dakota epidemiologist Josh Clayton said Smithfield has been testing employees for “nearly a week,” working with the company’s health care system.
Smithfield did not immediately respond to questions on why it was waiting until Saturday to close the plant.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has been in communication with the company and appreciated its “decisive action,” spokeswoman Maggie Seidel said.
Tyson, Cargill and other major meat processing companies say they are taking a variety of precautions to keep workers safe, including taking the temperature of everyone entering their plants, adding clear plexiglass shields between work stations and erecting tents for more lunchroom space.
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