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Colorado’s governor says state can still shut meatpacking plants down as union calls for protections

“If they need to be closed again we are confident that we have the tools to be able to do that,” Gov. Jared Polis told reporters on Friday.

The JBS meat-packing plant in Greeley resumed operations April 24, 2020, after a brief closure due to a coronavirus outbreak. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)
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Gov. Jared Polis on Friday said he believes Colorado can still shut down meatpacking plants where there are outbreaks of the new coronavirus, even after an order from President Donald Trump mandating that they stay open.

“If they need to be closed again, we are confident that we have the tools to be able to do that,” Polis told reporters on Friday. 

The governor said last week that he wouldn’t let Trump’s order put Colorado workers’ health at risk and that he was going through Trump’s order with a fine-toothed comb. The result of that review, Polis said, is that he believes he still has the ability to regulate the facilities where animals are slaughtered and prepared for sale. 

“We found that we really do still have the ability with the county health department and the state health department to be able to have health orders to help keep the workers safe at a facility like JBS if needed,” Polis said. “That authority has not been taken from us.”

Polis was referencing the JBS beef plant in Greeley, where an outbreak of coronavirus has sickened 280 workers and killed at least seven. About 2,500 people work at the facility. 

The plant closed down for about 10 days last month because of the outbreak and drew attention from the White House because of the closure’s impact on the national food supply chain combined with other facilities’ shutdowns.

MORE: Even with beef plants staying open, reduced capacity means Colorado ranchers feel the coronavirus pinch

Kim Cordova, president of UFCW Local 7, which represents workers at the JBS plant, said Trump’s order “will only ensure that more workers get sick, jeopardizing lives, family’s income, communities, and of course, the country’s food supply chain.”

There have been outbreaks of the disease at four other Colorado meatpacking plants as well:

  • Sixty workers have confirmed or probable coronavirus infections at the Cargill Meat Solutions facility in Fort Morgan. At least one worker has died.
  • Nineteen workers have tested positive for the virus at a Denver processing facility owned by Empire Packing Co
  • Eighteen workers have tested positive for the virus at the Rocky Mountain Natural Meats, which processes bison in Adams County
  • Eight workers have tested positive for the virus at the Mountain States Rosen Company, a producer-owned lamb processing plant in Weld County

Steven Vairma, principal executive officer of Teamsters Local 455, which represents the 1,900 workers at Cargill, said the company has been better than others in protecting their employees. But more could be done. 

Vairma said he’d like to see Polis issue an executive order directing meatpacking plants to take safety precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus. 

“Give us teeth, that’s all,” he said. “They’re ordering our folks to work and to not allow any of the plants to close down, but they aren’t giving us any teeth to ensure that our workers are going to be safe.”

The Cargill meatpacking facility in Fort Morgan. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Right now, meatpacking plants are operating under guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’ve got to keep pushing for better, enforceable rules,” Vairma said. “There’s not a standard method of best practices for keeping our workers safe that are enforceable. Unfortunately, every company adopts its own rules for its location.”

MORE: The Colorado county with the highest coronavirus infection rate is now on the Eastern Plains

Cordova, of UFCW Local 7, has also called for “clear and enforceable guidelines to ensure that every employer lives up to the highest safety standards.” 

Meanwhile, on Friday afternoon Weld County announced that the head of its health department, Dr. Mark Wallace, is retiring at the end of this month. He has held the position for 20 years.

Wallace oversaw the county’s response to the JBS outbreak, as well as deadly outbreaks of coronavirus at nursing homes in the county.
A news release said Wallace was retiring to “spend more time with family and focusing on his health.” 

“I’m proud to have been a part of developing a strong public health program here in Weld,” Wallace said in a written statement. 

The resignation comes after Wallace warned Weld County’s commissioners not to reopen businesses faster than the pace of the rest of the state 

MORE: Weld County’s top public health official warned commissioners against full reopening, documents show

“Weld County has not met the threshold for reopening of a downward trajectory of cases,” Wallace wrote in an email to the commissioners that was obtained through an open records request by The NoCo Optimist. “Any relaxation of restrictions should be cautiously staged given the risk of even wider spread of the disease.”

As of Friday afternoon, Weld County continued to have one of the state’s worst coronavirus outbreaks in terms of total cases and deaths. More than 2,000 people had confirmed or probable infections and at least 113 had died from the disease.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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