Trump has stubbornly refused to use his executive powers to compel the production of personal protective equipment, such as masks and gowns, for front-line medical workers. He boasts about the chummy “partnerships” he supposedly brokered with corporate bigwigs to acquire ventilators and to launch a still-inadequate testing program. But when executives from meat-processing companies began speaking out about the danger that outbreaks of covid-19 posed to their businesses, our meatloaf-loving president almost immediately invoked the Defense Production Act to force the plants to stay open — but not to guarantee that employees will be kept safe.
Whose lives are put at risk by the order Trump issued on Tuesday? Low-income workers — many of them black or brown, many of them immigrants — who cannot afford to lose their jobs and who now must put their health at risk to stay employed.
On the White House website, Trump declared the meatpacking plants part of the nation’s “critical infrastructure” and said “closure of any of these plants could disrupt our food supply and detrimentally impact our hard-working farmers and ranchers.” Make no mistake: He was designating the workers in these protein factories not essential but expendable.
Perversely, Trump had to order the plants to remain open because some have already become hotbeds of covid-19.
Scores of such plants, including some truly enormous facilities, have reported virus outbreaks over the past two months. Some have had to close. The Des Moines Register reported Wednesday that up to one-third of U.S. meatpacking capacity may be offline. Just three of the shuttered plants — Tyson Fresh Meats in Waterloo, Iowa; Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and the JBS pork-processing facility in Worthington, Minn. — together account for about 15 percent of U.S. pork production.
The Tyson plant in Iowa offers an instructive case study. Waterloo, a small city of about 68,000 situated northeast of Des Moines, is the seat of Black Hawk County. Of more than 1,300 cases in the county, which has seen more people diagnosed with covid-19 than anywhere else in Iowa, 90 percent are connected in some way to the plant.
Iowa’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, is allowing most of the state to begin a partial reopening this Friday. Like the other states prematurely trying to send citizens back to work, Iowa does not come close to meeting the goals of declining infections set out in the Trump administration’s guidelines. Reynolds, however, is one of a smaller number of governors who have announced that furloughed workers who are told to resume their jobs and refuse to do so — even out of justified fear for their health and that of their families — will have their unemployment benefits cut off.
Maintaining an adequate flow of food to grocery stores and still-functioning restaurants is necessary. But the meat industry, which has been criticized for decades over its working conditions, turns out to be an ideal environment for spreading the highly contagious coronavirus. Because of the way workers are stationed, and because of the high speed at which processing lines are designed to run, it is difficult to implement social distancing without upending the entire production process.
If the fight against covid-19 is a war, workers ordered to go back into these plants have every right to feel like cannon fodder.
It comes as no surprise that the Trump administration, with its reflexively plutocratic orientation, would think nothing of sending poor, powerless workers into danger. It’s fully in character. But it’s also really stupid.
The virus does not respect property lines or wait to infect people until they’ve clocked out. A cluster of infections at a plant quickly spills out into the larger community. Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson said on Wednesday that he is seeing cases at long-term care facilities that health officials have traced back to the Tyson plant. He said that two of his employees who work at the county jail have tested positive — a kitchen worker whose roommate works at Tyson, and a nurse.
Trump could have saved lives by issuing tough, specific, mandatory requirements for meat processors to slow down their lines, institute proper social distancing, frequently shut down plants for deep cleaning and repeatedly test all workers to isolate the infected. But no: That would have meant asking the nation to survive on fewer bacon cheeseburgers for a while. Bon appétit!