The Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Wallula shuts down on April 23, 2020 because of a deadly COVID-19 outbreak among its workers. The company takes this step when more than 100 cases of the virus and one death are linked to the meatpacking plant, the second-largest employer in Walla Walla County. The first case linked to the facility was confirmed on April 1 and the number has risen steadily. On April 17, Walla Walla County officials mandate new safety procedures, including face masks and physical distancing. Confirmation of the first death arrives on April 22, and a petition is signed by 4,000 people, asking for a temporary shutdown. The next morning the company announces the plant is closing to conduct mass testing of all 1,482 workers. Testing brings the total confirmed cases linked to the plant to 277 -- about 19 percent of the workforce. Three deaths are linked to the plant. On May 5, 2020 the plant reopens with new protective measures in place.
Packing Plants Stricken Nationwide
The first hint of trouble at Tyson Fresh Meats, the largest beef packing plant in the state, came at the end of March when a butcher at the plant, Guadalupe Olivera, 60, came down with flulike symptoms. On April 1, he tested positive for COVID-19. Yet it took several days before state officials relayed word to Walla Walla County health officials.
It was not until April 13 that it became clear that a major outbreak was underway. On that day, health officials reported that 39 people linked directly or indirectly to the plant had tested positive. Of those, nine people lived in Walla Walla County and 30 lived in Benton and Franklin counties. The plant is on the edge of Walla Walla County, but the vast majority of its employees live in the Tri-Cities, in either Franklin County or Benton County, complicating efforts to quantify the outbreak.
Meatpacking plants were in the news at this time, because COVID-19 outbreaks were raging in plants in Pennsylvania, Iowa, and other states. Meatpacking plants were particularly vulnerable to outbreaks because they were filled with workers often standing shoulder to shoulder. Tyson officials said they had already implemented safety measures at the Wallula plant, including masks, temperature checks, work-station dividers, and extra cleaning. The plant remained in operation.
Walla Walla County health authorities immediately inspected the plant and reported that Tyson was making a "concerted effort" to minimize transmission ("Update"). "We have two options -- close the plant for 14 days and hope their employees stay under quarantine for those two weeks while at home, or work with them to be successful in prevention efforts," said Meghan DeBolt, director of Walla Walla County's Department of Community Health ("Update"). She said that keeping the plant open was the right choice at the time ("Update").
That assessment would soon change. By April 17, 50 cases were connected with the plant. Walla Walla County health authorities ordered further safety measures, including mandatory masks. Communication of safety procedures was particularly complicated, because 11 languages were spoken at the plant, which employed a number of immigrants, migrants, and refugees. DeBolt warned the company that if mitigation efforts were not followed or if the outbreak worsened, closure remained an option.
On April 22, the situation took a critical turn for the worse. On that day, official word arrived that Olivera, who lived in the Tri-Cities, had died of COVID-19 on April 20. The total number of confirmed cases linked to the plant had now exceeded 100. Workers were frightened, speaking out, and urging closure. Concerned family and friends of the employees launched an online petition drive urging the closure of the plant. It quickly reached more than 4,000 signatures. DeBolt said she was now going to require COVID-19 tests for all plant workers.
19 Percent of Tyson Workforce Tests Positive
On the morning of April 23, a story by Jedidiah Maynes in the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin reported on the petition and quoted one infected employee as saying he "cannot go back to that hellhole, I just can't" ("Petition"). The company had authorized extra "thank-you" pay of $500 for those continuing to work, but this did not alleviate the concerns ("Petition"). Ittai Orr, who launched the petition drive, told the paper that "workers are going to wake up tomorrow morning and go right on exposing themselves and others to the virus" ("Petition").
That same morning, Tyson announced that the plant was shutting down in order to test all 1,482 employees as soon as possible. The company had instituted similar closures for testing at plants in other states. Across the nation, at least 20 other meatpacking plants were closed, or would soon close. The Wallula closure was temporary, said the company, and the duration would depend on two factors: The time it would take to get the test results back, and the outcome of those tests.
The plant continued partial operations the next day, in order to finish processing meat that was already on location -- otherwise, the closed plant would be filled with rotting meat. The first test results took almost a week and then trickled in over the next few days. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump issued an executive order on April 28 declaring meat processing plants to be critical infrastructure in an attempt to keep plants open. At first it was unclear what this meant for the Wallula closure, but Tyson officials later said they would await test results before reopening. The final test results showed 277 confirmed cases, about 19 percent of the total workforce.
There were enough healthy or recovered employees to resume operations. On May 5, the plant reopened with new safety measures in place. A mobile medical clinic was set up outside the plant, for regular wellness checks. Tyson said it would double the amount of "thank you" bonuses. The plant manager said that "our team members are essential to help feeding the nation, and their health and safety are always our first priority" ("Final Results"). According to Tyson, the Wallula plant produces enough beef in one day to feed 4 million people.
This was not the only food processing plant in Washington to see an outbreak. The Washington Beef plant in Toppenish in the nearby Yakima Valley had 38 confirmed cases and one death as of April 24. A fruit processing plant in Yakima and a pasta plant in Spokane had outbreaks in May.
Meanwhile, the death toll at Tyson Fresh Meats had climbed to three. On May 15, the United Farm Workers union set up a memorial outside the entrance to Tyson Fresh Meats with photos of three men linked to the plant who had died of COVID-19: Guadalupe Olivera, Bernardo Torralba, and Jorge Guijarro-Castaneda. Their photos, surrounded by flowers, were arranged under a company billboard that said. "Thank You For Working Safe Today."