Waterloo Tyson plant to shut down after COVID outbreak

Tyson workers have had plastic dividers separating them on the production line. (Photo provided by Tyson Fresh Meats)

Tyson Fresh Meats in Waterloo announced Wednesday it was suspending operations indefinitely at the plant due to an outbreak of COVID-19.

The plant, which employs 2,800 people, has been running at reduced levels of production due to worker absenteeism, a Tyson news release said. It will stop production this week “until further notice.”

More than 260 food plant workers from around the state tested positive over the weekend as outbreaks spurred intensive surveillance testing.

“Protecting our team members is our top priority and the reason we’ve implemented numerous safety measures during this challenging and unprecedented time,” Tyson Fresh Meats president Steve Stouffer said in the release. “Despite our continued efforts to keep our people safe while fulfilling our critical role of feeding American families, the combination of worker absenteeism, COVID-19 cases and community concerns has resulted in our decision to stop production.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds has praised the response of Tyson and other meatpacking operators for being “proactive” and taking precautions such as testing workers’ temperatures at the door. But Waterloo community leaders have expressed alarm and 20 officials signed a letter last week asking plant operators to shut down temporarily.

The Tyson plant in Columbus Junction reopened this week after being closed about two weeks for cleaning and worker testing after an outbreak there.

“The closure has significant ramifications beyond our company, since the plant is part of a larger supply chain that includes hundreds of independent farmers, truckers, distributors and customers, including grocers,” Stouffer said. “It means the loss of a vital market outlet for farmers and further contributes to the disruption of the nation’s pork supply.”

The facility’s employees will be invited to come to the plant later this week for COVID-19 testing and they will continue to be paid while the plant is closed, the release said. The outcome of testing will be one factor determining when operations will resume.