Grand Island Mayor Steele Defends COVID-19 Response and Asks for More Testing

Grand Island Mayor Roger Steele (Photo City of Grand Island)
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May 1, 2020 - 5:30pm

Grand Island and Hall County are COVID-19 hotspots in Nebraska, where there are more than 1000 cases of the disease. A huge beef processing plant there has had several hundred positive cases. NET’s Jack Williams spoke with Grand Island Mayor Roger Steele about his city’s battle with COVID-19 and struggle to get more testing.


NET News: First of all, Mayor, how is your city holding up right now after a rough few weeks? 

Mayor Roger Steele: You know, I think it's holding up quite well. Obviously, the people are concerned about our rate of COVID-19. But you know, people don't panic, people do their best to carry on. So, you know, all in all, we're doing the best as we can.

NET News: You have expressed some frustration over what amounts to an unfunded mandate when it comes to keeping meat processing plants open without any real help from the federal government when it comes to testing. How frustrating is that for you? 

Mayor Roger Steele: Look, I have a population of people who are considered essential workers by the United States Department of Homeland Security. They are expected to go to work and I think when you have people like that you have to make their safety an absolute priority. We've needed testing in Grand Island and we have had some, but we've needed dedicated testing to the workers at JBS, the meat processing plant, for several weeks now. It's frustrating in the sense that it's an unfair expectation to direct some people to go into crowded conditions and continue working when the testing is not there. 

NET News: You've invited Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue to come to your city to see what you're going through. What would he see there?

Mayor Roger Steele: I think he'd see a city that is essential to American agriculture. And we are, and I'd like to get that point across. I do not dispute the fact that at this time, America and the world needs a reliable food supply. Grand Island is happy to step up and help do that. So I'd like Secretary Perdue to see that heritage of being supportive to agriculture. I'd also like to talk to him about special issues we've seen with what I call the critical workforce that's expected to stay on the job without a whole lot of help from other people.

NET News: You haven't called for the JBS plan to close down, so that does mean you do agree that the plant is an essential part of the food supply and really should say open? 

Mayor Roger Steele: The plant here is an essential part of the food supply. I have been in the plant, I've inspected it myself. I think they have done a good job at trying to be as safe and sanitary as they can. The problem is we're dealing with a microscopic pathogen and the only way you can know if it is around and infecting the workforce is by testing and that really shouldn't be on JBS's shoulders. If these workers and JBS are ordered to remain open, to supply food for the nation, the testing should be provided. In my view, it should be provided by the federal government. 

NET News: Mayor, unfortunately there's kind of a stigma attached sometimes when a city becomes a coronavirus hotspot. What do you say to people who think Grand Island residents didn't follow social distancing rules and are now paying for that? 

Mayor Roger Steele: That's nonsense. Okay. I'm going to tell you, we have done an excellent job of educating our community about proper social distancing. I believe our compliance with those guidelines are as strong as anywhere you may go. It's just that we're on the front line, because when you have essential critical workers, when everybody else is told to go home, they can't. Okay? These guidelines may work very well in a community where people can pick up a laptop computer and go work from home. Well, here's the deal. You cannot process beef in your living room. You cannot build a combine in your backyard. It's just the circumstance that we are a city on the front line because we are a city of essential workers. 

NET News: This might not be the last time we deal with a COVID-19 outbreak. What have you learned amid this pandemic that will be helpful if your city faces this again in the fall or winter before there's really an effective vaccine?  

Mayor Roger Steele: I think the thing I learned is, we have to react immediately. Especially in cities like Grand Island, where you have so many critical infrastructure workers. You have to put a priority on their safety, because the routine advice of stay at home well doesn't work. So, so there has to be an extra layer of protection. If you tell people you will go back into your processing plant and keep working. That extra layer of protection in my view that has been lacking is testing to make sure the workers are not carrying the virus into the plant. Look, if I worked in a plant like that, I would want to know I don't have the virus and I'd want to know the person working next to me doesn't have the virus. So that's what I've learned from this ordeal. 

NET News: Roger Steele is the Mayor of Grand Island, Nebraska. Mayor Steele, thanks for your time today. 

Mayor Roger Steele: Thanks for calling me.

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