As Meatpacking Towns Battle COVID-19, Grand Island Mayor Says Local Governments Can't Close Down Plants

(Photo by NET News Staff)
April 23, 2020 - 3:00pm

Grand Island, Nebraska is in the midst of its COVID-19 outbreak: the city’s transmission rate is around fifteen times higher than the rest of Nebraska. Many are concerned that nearly 40 percent of the district's 600 plus cases are tied to the local JBS beef plant, which employs around 3,000 people.

Details around who is contracting COVID-19 in the area are sharpening. The average patient is young, between 40 and 50 years old, and many of the city's COVID-19 patients appear to be located in the area around the plant.

Mayor Roger Steele has fielded an onslaught of questions about a potential closure over recent weeks. Steele has repeatedly said plants must stay open for as long as possible, as they are considered critical infrastructure to food supply and national security by the federal government.

Today, the mayor added the city couldn't shut the plant down if it wanted to.

“Governor Ricketts told me that mayors are not allowed to decide whether private businesses stay open or closed," he explained at a community update conference.

(Data map courtesy of Central District Health Department)

Steele didn't comment on whether closing could help slow Grand Island’s outbreak, but he did mention that any decision to close a plant is inherently complex, with potentially national impacts on meat supply chains.

The pressure to choose has weighed on local JBS management, he said, which has avoided publicly acknowledging if there is any plan to close.

“These employers on the one hand have been told to stay open because they are critical infrastructure industries," Steele said. "On the other hand, they have to do their best to protect their employees.”

State health officials in Colorado recently ordered a JBS plant closed after a widespread outbreak within the plant and two deaths. Under the health order, the facility will stay closed for at least two weeks. To reopen, the plant must test all of its employees, secure PPE for staff, enact social distancing policies, and provide proper quarantine housing and sick leave for workers who become sick or exposed to the virus.

Governor Ricketts has taken a different approach so far for plants in Nebraska. He does not plan to close the plant downor any facility statewide. He said Thursday afternoon that he sees meat supply as a national security issue, and will work to keep all plants open, despite the high volume of cases.

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