WORTHINGTON — A re-opening of the JBS pork processing plant in Worthington — and the safety of its workers — was job No. 1 Wednesday afternoon as Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and several other elected officials took part in a press conference at the Worthington Municipal Airport.
But, near the end of visit, several questions touched upon non-hog issues.
One questioner asked when Walz’s stay-at-home order, which is set to expire on May 4, might be eased. The governor said he will have something more to say about the subject Thursday afternoon, but that the order is likely to continue in place at least until testing can be ramped up higher than it is now.
Comparing the coronavirus pandemic to a kind of gravity that goes where it will, the governor said, “It’s not like a light switch.”
Walz was joined in the spacious Prairie Holdings Group hangar in north Worthington by U.S. Reps. Collin Peterson (DFL-District 7), Jim Hagedorn (R-District 1), 4th District Iowa Rep. Steve King (R), and Minnesota District 22 Sen. Bill Weber (R-Luverne) and District 22B State Rep. Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake)
Last weekend, a four-day testing program in Worthington resulted in 239 positive cases among JBS’ more than 2,000 employees, as reported Tuesday evening by the Minnesota Department of Health. Peterson suggested Wednesday that the number of positive tests has reached more than 400, and also drew another sobering comparison when he reminded attendees that the virus is not at all confined to the hog facility — that Nobles County is registering the same level of coronavirus activity per capita as New York City.
The press conference, though, was mostly about JBS, and the need for workers to feel safe before going back to work in the pork processing facility. No employee, Walz said, will be asked to return to work until he or she feels safe in doing so.
There’s also the need to get plants back in business, he said, and the equally important need to return Minnesota to its proper role as a major meat provider for the country.
“We need to be processing food for this country. We need to get these plants up and running,” he said. “This is a worker safety issue, it’s a food chain supply issue, and it’s also a food safety issue.”
The governor said that when employees return to work at the local plant, proper precautions must be taken, such as separating work spaces.
Walz took a question that addressed non-meat plant workers, as well. He responded by saying that there are approximately 525,000 people currently unemployed in Minnesota. People understandably want to get back to work as soon as they’re able.
“The business community is the one saying, ‘We have to be able to feel safe again,’” Walz said, adding that he wants people to be able to safely enter a hardware store and buy a hammer.
Some businesses will be closer to full operations sooner than other businesses and venues, he said.
“I have to be honest with you. Some things, like football stadiums or packed bars, those are going to be some of the last things,” he told his audience.
Peterson summed up the difficult times as the press conference came to a close, drawing attention to the difficulties faced in the pork facilities while state officials and hog producers grapple with the need to humanely euthanize their product.
“We’re about three weeks away from not having pork on the shelves of grocery stores,” he said.
The press conference was attended by several media outlets. At least seven camera tripods were arranged on the cement floor of the hangar, including several ready to send signals back to television stations.