WORTHINGTON — When JBS USA announced last week that it would reopen its Worthington plant starting Wednesday, UFCW Local 663 President Matt Utecht knew he needed to see the process for himself.

What he learned Wednesday was that JBS "did a lot of work around social distancing," Utecht said. He noted that the facility now includes clear plexiglass dividers between line workers, and each person is at least six feet away from their nearest coworker. JBS also added more locker space to allow employees to spread out in the locker rooms, and has made efforts to physically separate the departments from each other.

"There is signage all over the place" about the importance of social distancing, Utecht added.

Before entering the plant, each employee must go through triage, which includes a symptom questionnaire and a temperature check. Three nurses staff the triage center, and on Wednesday, they sent eight employees home for indicating at least one COVID-19 symptom.

Utecht was able to interact with a number of line workers during his Wednesday visit.

"People are scared," he said. "Of course they are. If anybody wasn't a little nervous to be coming back, they're probably lying."

On Wednesday, only 125 workers showed up for the first shift. By Thursday, that number jumped to 400, which Utecht says is likely the result of the 125 telling their coworkers about the various safety measures put in place. It's too early to tell how staffing will level out, Utecht said, but he plans to keep an eye on the employee turnout.

In talking with the plant's general manager, Brad Hellinga, Utecht learned that the plan is to gradually work back up to full line speed. Hellinga noted that line work is physical labor, and being off work for two weeks is like an athlete going two weeks without a workout, Utecht said.

With limited staff, the plant processed 1,086 hogs on Wednesday, then nearly 10,000 on Thursday. Utecht said he is cautiously optimistic that the plant can operate at 50% capacity while maintaining worker safety.