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Coronavirus In MN: Worthington's JBS Pork Plant Partially Reopens, Operations Expected To 'Normalize Over Time'

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Worthington's JBS pork processing plant has partially reopened Wednesday with normal operations expected to return over time.

On Wednesday, JBS USA announced it reopened harvest operations at its Worthington facility with reduced staff. The reopening follows an order for meat processing plants to stay open by President Donald Trump.

Related: 728 New COVID-19 Cases Reported As Death Toll Nears 500

"The company intends to harvest and fabricate on Thursday. We expect operations to normalize over time as absenteeism rates decline in response to the preventive measures in place at the facility and as team members clear any necessary quarantine protocols," JBS said in a statement.

Hundreds of workers at the JBS plant in Worthington have tested positive for COVID-19 (more than 350 as of May 3) since the pandemic began. Two weeks ago, the JBS facility shut down due to the outbreak.

Nobles County, which is home to the Worthington plant, has the second-highest amount of infections in the state -- over 1,000 -- behind Hennepin County.

Other meat processing facilities hit hard by COVID-19 are slowly coming online as well.

"When one piece goes down it really creates chaos and ripples through the rest of the industry," Kenyon hog farmer Michael Patterson said.

Patterson's 3,000 hogs are running out of both space and time. The Smithfield processing plant he should be shipping to in Sioux Falls, South Dakota has been shut down for nearly a month. A testing site has been set up for workers there after more than 800 employees at that plant tested positive. Some workers returned to the plant Monday, though the facility is not operational yet.

"The space we have is designed to hold a number of animals until they are ready for market, not three to four weeks after that point," Patterson said.

Normal production cycles are filling farmer's barns with new piglets. But if you can't ship to market, you have little choice but to cull your stock.

"The euthanasia or depopulation of some barns across Minnesota has begun," Patterson said.

Resuming scaled back production at Worthington's JBS plant will help. 16 days after a rash of illnesses forced it to close, JBS spokesperson, Cameron Bruett said, "it took the opportunity to further enhance the COVID-19 prevention protocols already in place at the facility during the closure."

The union representing many of the JBS employees, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 663, said previously that 150 employees will be working per shift Wednesday. It's normally three to four times that. The union tells WCCO social distancing is the biggest hurdle to returning, but reduced staffing helps.

"We thank our team members, the local community and the union for their support in safely getting Worthington back to the important work of helping our pork producer partners and providing needed food for the country," JBS said.

Matt Utecht, president of UFCW Local 663, toured the plant on Wednesday. Utecht said he is impressed with the added safety measures. Workers will be stationed further apart, with plastic partitions.

The measures are something workers, consumers and hog farmers will be counting on to prevent any further mass disruptions.

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