A Cargill beef plant in Schuyler reopened Monday after shutting down for two weeks so more workers could be tested for the coronavirus and more safety measures could be implemented inside the facility.
That means that all three meat processing plants in Nebraska that closed temporarily as the coronavirus sickened workers — the Tyson beef plant in Dakota City, the Tyson pork plant in Madison and the Cargill plant — are now back in business.
Cargill, which employs 2,200 people at the Schuyler plant, will gradually ramp up its work slaughtering cattle and slicing and packaging cuts of beef. The plant began to close on May 4 “out of an abundance of caution,” Cargill officials said, but continued paying employees for 36 hours of work each week. It is the largest employer in Schuyler, a city of about 7,500 people west of Fremont.
“We look forward to welcoming our employees back and are focused on their health and safety as we resume operations,” general manager Sammy Renteria said in a statement. “We know being an essential worker is challenging, and we thank our team for working so hard to deliver food for local families, access to markets for ranchers and products for our customers’ shelves.”
Economists have estimated that pork and beef processing capacity has been down as much as 40% over the past month or so after several large plants across the country temporarily closed amid coronavirus outbreaks. Some grocery stores, including Costco, Hy-Vee and Baker’s, began limiting how much meat customers could buy.
State officials said Monday that 2,601 meatpacking workers in Nebraska have tested positive for the coronavirus and eight have died. That means that meatpackers account for 25% of the state’s 10,625 confirmed cases as of Monday.
Meatpacking plants across the Midwest, many of which employ hundreds or thousands of people working in close quarters, have been struggling to contain outbreaks of the contagious virus.
Cargill and local health officials have not disclosed how many employees at the Schuyler plant had COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
But the number of cases in Colfax and Platte Counties began to grow rapidly just as the plant was idled. As of Monday, there were 528 confirmed coronavirus cases in Colfax County, where Schuyler is, and 462 in neighboring Platte County, home to Columbus.
On April 23, less than one month ago, there were only eight confirmed cases in Colfax and 13 in Platte.
The East Central District Health Department reported its first coronavirus-related death in Platte County on Saturday, a man in his late 30s. The Health Department did not know if he had underlying health problems.
During the closure of the Cargill plant, the Nebraska National Guard set up a testing collection site at the plant, as did TestNebraska, the state initiative to get more Nebraskans tested for the virus.
A Cargill spokesman did not say how many workers were tested. When Tyson shut down its Madison plant, it tested all 1,400-plus workers and contractors and found that 212 had COVID-19, or 14.5% of the workforce, including dozens who showed no symptoms.
In addition to expanding testing, Cargill installed more barriers on the production floor to separate workers.
“We continue to consult with health experts on implementing new protocols as they are identified to protect our employees from the community-wide impacts of the virus,” Renteria said. “These actions are taken in addition to the extensive safety measures already implemented at our facility for over a month.”
Cargill said other safety measures will remain in place, including masks worn by workers, enhanced cleaning of the plant, temporary pay raises and bonuses and 80 hours of paid sick leave for workers with COVID-19.
“Cargill did a really good job of monitoring their workers,” Schuyler Mayor Jon Knutson said in an interview earlier this month. “They were sending folks home who were showing symptoms, reminding them you get two weeks off paid if things are going wrong. I was able to tour the plant. They had gone above all the requirements.”
World-Herald staff writer Paul Hammel contributed to this report.