Despite COVID-19 Case Rise, Ricketts Doesn't Foresee Closing Meat Plants

April 23, 2020, 5:53 p.m. ·

Gov. Pete Ricketts speaks Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Despite increasing cases of COVID-19 affecting workers in meatpacking plants, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Thursday he doesn’t foresee ordering them to close.

Officials say at least 230 workers at the JBS meatpacking plant in Grand Island have tested positive for COVID-19. Numbers of cases in Dawson County, where there’s a Tyson plant in Lexington, had spiked to 197 as of Wednesday night, although officials aren’t saying how many are plant employees. There’ve been at least 40 cases at a Tyson Plant in Madison. Cases in Dakota County, where there’s a Tyson plant in Dakota City, more than doubled from Wednesday to Thursday, when they stood at 246. Some of those are at Tyson, but officials haven’t said how many.

Ricketts has repeatedly stressed the importance of keeping meatpacking plants open because of the role they play in the food supply. At his daily coronavirus news conference Thursday, he was asked if there’s a point at which he would change his mind.

“I don’t foresee a scenario where I would tell them to close,” Ricketts said.

Ricketts said the state is working with companies to keep the plants open.

“Internally they’re going to make their own decisions, but were working very hard to make sure they can stay open because it’s vital for our food supply,” he said.

As he has in recent days, the governor predicted dire consequences if the plants were shut down.

“Can you imagine what would happen if people could not go to the store and get food? You want to talk about some of these protests that are going on right now? Think about how mad people were when they couldn’t get paper products. Think about if they can’t get food. Right, folks? This is why it’s vitally important that we keep our food processors open and do everything we can to assure our food supply chain, because we would have civil unrest if that was not the case,” he said.

When a questioner asked what would happen if people could still get food, just not meat, Ricketts doubled down.

“Trust me, this would cause civil unrest. If you think there’s people unhappy right now with the steps we’ve taken, wait ‘til they can’t do that. So again, we’ve got to do everything we can to be able to make sure we keep these processors open,” he said.

Two experts from the University of Nebraska Medical Center toured the JBS plant in Grand Island, and Ricketts said they gave the plant high marks.

“By and large they’ve said they’ve been very impressed with the steps the food processors have been taking. Obviously there’s always room for improvement, and they’ve been giving them tips on what else they could do,” he said.

And in response to a question about the outbreak in Dakota County, Ricketts said it’s more than a workplace issue.

“This is a community issue. What do we see in places where we have a lot of spread of the virus? Well, we see people concentrated together. And that’s certainly true with our food processors where you have people together. But it can also be true in households if you have multiple generations of people living together, or a lot of people living in a household…And I think we have to focus on not just what the worksites are doing but what’s also going on at home,” he said.

And Ricketts said the state needs to do a better job at reaching communities where some meatpacking workers live.

“So that’s why, for example, we’re doing the Spanish press briefings that we did Tuesday and were doing again Thursday, is to reach households where English is not the first language,” he said.

Also Thursday, Ricketts responded to a question about why some people who applied for unemployment benefits more than a month ago still have not received their first check. He said while he didn’t know the specifics of the situation in question, he could offer one possible explanation.

“The software to process the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance just became operational today. So we just got that software up and running,” he said.

Labor Commissioner John Albin said the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program that software is used for is for people who don’t qualify for traditional unemployment programs – the self-employed, gig economy workers, or those who hadn’t been on the job long enough to qualify.