Black Hawk officials call on Tyson to temporarily close Waterloo plant

Black Hawk County Supervisor Chris Schwartz, wearing a face mask, reads a letter calling for temporary shutdown of the Tyson food plant in Waterloo. (Iowa Capital Dispatch photo)

Elected officials in Black Hawk County called on Tyson Foods Friday to voluntarily close its Waterloo plant temporarily to avoid further spread of COVID-19 among workers and the community.

Black Hawk County Supervisor Chris Schwartz, wearing a face mask, read a letter at a news conference calling for the plant closure to allow time for cleaning, test results and an adequate public health response.

“This outbreak at a facility of your size puts great risk to the safety and wellbeing all residents in our community, especially the elderly and vulnerable,” the letter states.

The letter was signed by two other county supervisors, the county sheriff, the mayors of Waterloo and seven other cities, two state senators and four state representatives representing Black Hawk County and the region.

Schwartz said if Tyson doesn’t act voluntarily, officials will ask Gov. Kim Reynolds to order a temporary shutdown.  “We really just implore Tyson’s to be a good actor and become a good partner in this because right now, that’s not been the case,” he said.

Earlier Friday, Reynolds said the state was sending 2,700 COVID-19 tests to the Tyson Fresh Meats plant —  one for every worker there. She praised plant management for taking steps to protect workers, including having temperatures tested at the door, a relaxation of attendance policies to encourage sick workers to stay home, and social distancing measures within plant areas.

She said the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration was also engaged with plant management.

State lawmakers disputed Reynolds’ assertions that the company has been proactive and acting in the best interests of workers’ health.

“Sadly, contrary to the governor’s statements this morning, we’re not ahead of the outbreak at our local Tyson processing plant,” state Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, said.

Smith said stories he’s heard from Tyson plant workers “break my heart, even if they’re only half-true.”

Smith said he’s “scared as hell” of what the outbreak could mean for the community, especially given its demographics and the disproportionate impact of the virus on people of color.

Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, said he felt Reynolds “was misinforming Iowans, maybe not intentionally but it clearly seemed that way when she talked about the care being taken at Tyson.”

He said the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration has made no visits to any Iowa meatpacking facility since COVID-19 appeared in the state.  “That is deeply troubling,” he said.

Schwartz said while local officials would ask the governor to close the plant if Tyson would not act voluntarily, he does not believe community leaders have the ability to enforce a shutdown without state approval.

Text of letter to Tyson Foods

To Tyson Foods Inc,

We the undersigned elected officials of Black Hawk County, Iowa call upon the Tyson Foods, Inc. to take all steps necessary for immediate mitigation of the risk to our community and your employees from an outbreak of Covid-19 at your Waterloo operation. We understand that these are extraordinary times, but steps must be taken to ensure the safety and well-beings of Tyson’s valuable employees and our community.

There is now an outbreak of positive cases of Covid-19 at the Tyson’s Waterloo operation. We ask that you voluntarily cease operations on a temporary basis at your Waterloo facility so that appropriate cleaning and mitigation strategies can take place and be in place for a resumption of production. We also ask that you take this step to allow test results to catch-up and the data to be collected so that community health care practitioners can get a handle on this situation. The state of Iowa is now sending over 1,500 test kits for test needed in relationship to the Tyson Foods, Inc. Waterloo operation, we ask that you fully participate with this state in the critical testing operation, test are of limited supply and it is important that this be done right.  This outbreak at a facility of your size puts great risk to the safety and wellbeing all residents in our community, especially the elderly and vulnerable. We ask that when you do re-open to practice all available social distancing, screening, and deep cleaning practices available. This will mitigate the risk that our local health care system is not overwhelmed while simultaneously working towards ensuring sustainable production in the future.

We do not make this request lightly; we understand the importance of this facility in our national food chain and the cascading effect our requested closure would have on your supply networks. However, we must all come together at this time to do what is best for the long-term safety and health of our community.

Evansdale Mayor Troy Beatty

Dunkerton Mayor Mike Schares

Waterloo City Councilperson Jonathan Grieder

State Senator Bill Dotzler (Waterloo)

State Representative Bob Kessing (Cedar Falls)

State Representative Timi Brown-Powers (Waterloo)

State Representative Ras Smith (Waterloo)

State Representative Dave Williams (Cedar Falls)

State Senator Eric Giddens (Cedar Falls)

Black Hawk County Supervisor Chris Schwartz

Waterloo Mayor Quinten Hart

Cedar Falls Mayor Rob Green

Black Hawk County Supervisor Tom Little

Black Hawk County Supervisor Lina Laylin

Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson

La Porte City Mayor Dave Neil

Gilbertville Mayor Mark Thome

Hudson Mayor George Wessel

Raymond Mayor Gary Vick

Finkenauer asks for federal agency assistance

U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer, citing concerns she’s heard from meatpacking plant workers about “dangerous conditions,” contacted three federal agencies seeking enforceable safety standards, testing and protective gear.

Finkenauer, a Democrat representing Iowa’s 1st District, said in a news release she has written letters to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Department of Labor (DOL) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

“This week, I’ve heard from workers across my district facing dangerous conditions as they perform essential jobs in the middle of a deadly pandemic,” Finkenauer said. “I’m asking the USDA, the CDC and the Department of Labor to provide clear guidance and standards to protect the wellbeing of these frontline workers as well as our food supply and agricultural economy.”

The letter to the USDA and the DOL calls for additional federal resources to address the crisis as well as updated and enforceable safety standards at food processing plants. The letter to the CDC seeks industry-specific health-and-safety guidance for food processors, just as the agency has already issued for other industries like airline and transit operators.

Finkenauer also asked the CDC to deploy public health professionals to any affected community that requests additional assistance.