Wisconsin meat processing plants, closed after COVID-19 outbreaks, forced to re-open after Pres. Trump order

NOW: Wisconsin meat processing plants, closed after COVID-19 outbreaks, forced to re-open after Pres. Trump order

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Multiple Wisconisn meat packing facilites that closed after COVID-19 outbreaks will now have to re-open following an executive order from President Donald Trump.

Pres. Trump issued the order Tuesday, following warnings from companies such as Tyson, that shut downs could cause serious problems in the U.S. food supply chain.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said Wednesday that the supply chain is a concern in Wisconsin, but he, and several Democratic lawmakers, are concerned about worker safety.

“They need to ensure that everything has been sanitized properly, and they have all the right equipment in place to make sure their employees are not becoming infected,” Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee, said.

More than 550 meat processing workers have become infected with COVID-19 in Wisconsin, causing shut downs at plants like JBS  Packerland in Green Bay, and Patrick Cudahy.

Wisconsin State Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee,  says parent company Smitfield Foods, and the Cudahy mayor, are stonewalling those asking what’s happening in the plant.

“The fact that they are purposefully not disclosing what is going on there is a reason why this crisis is as bad as it is,” Larson said.

Smithfield is currently being sued in Missouri over workplace violations, where a judge ruled they had to follow CDC guidelines.

“It’s not taking basic, obvious precautions like letting workers wash their hands more frequently, or giving them tissues,” said David Maraskin, an attorney with Public Justice, the group representing the workers in the lawsuit.

Maraskin said minor changes have been made after the judges order, but not ones that make workers feel safe.

“In their filing today they explained they are not going to place people six feet across on the line," Maraskin said. "As all of us are staying home, and trying to protect ourselves and our family. This company is saying it couldn’t possibly slow down it’s line, to have people stand a few more feet apart. That is so irresponsible. It just shows how these companies operate. They’re putting money over their people.”

Smithfield declined an interview, and also declined to respond to questions about the lawsuit. The company does have a statement on their Website that says, in part, the president’s order will “ensure the american people will not experience protein shortages.”

Roundy's issued this statement on what grocery shoppers can expect given the current situation:

"The shortage of workers at meat processing plants due to COVID-19 closures has caused a slowdown in output. We source from various plants in the U.S. and our stores continue to be supplied with beef, chicken and pork products. However, until meat processing plants are running at full production output again, customers might experience limits on certain items such as pork products and less variety in various cuts and product options in other proteins."

But Larson said it’s not worth it to open up now. He also disagrees with the portion of Trump's order that protects employers from workplace protection lawsuits filed by employees.

“If an employee works there, they show up, they contract COVID-19, get sick and die, the employer is not liable," Larson said. "So i think it’s reprehensible.”

The president's order does come with guidelines for companies to safely reopen, but they are not mandatory for companies to follow.

The FDA says consumers do not need to worry about processed meats as a carrier for coronavirus.

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