SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A South Dakota meatpacking plant stricken by coronavirus will close for three days for cleaning and retool to guard against transmission of the virus among workers, its owner said Thursday, April 9.

At least 80 workers at the Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, according to state officials, but they said they expected that number to climb as the investigation into the hotspot continues. The plant employs 3,700.

Smithfield said most of the plant will be closed Saturday and be completely shuttered Sunday and Monday.

Steps the company will take in the plant will include "rigorous" deep cleaning and sanitation and the installation of "additional physical barriers" to encourage social distancing, it said. It is also adding extra hand sanitizing stations, "boosting" personal protective equipment, implementing thermal scanning and restricting all non-essential visitors, it said.

Employees will be paid for any previously scheduled hours during the closure, Smithfield said, and employees with a COVID-19 diagnosis or under 14-day quarantine will be provided paid time off. The company has also relaxed attendance policies to eliminate any punitive effect for missing work due a COVID-19 diagnosis or quarantine, it said.

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“Smithfield Foods is taking the utmost precautions and actions to ensure the health and wellbeing of our employees — with an even increased emphasis on our critical role in the ongoing supply of food to American families," Smithfield President and CEO Ken Sullivan said in the company's statement.

Both local and state officials said there is no concern about coronavirus-tainted meat from the plant, and say its products are safe to eat.

Conflict between food production, public health

Smithfield's pork-processing plant just north of downtown Sioux Falls buys hogs from around the region and has been a pillar in the Sioux Falls economy since it opened in 1909. It is considered an essential business by the federal government as a major component of the food industry.

So the decision to temporarily close the plant didn't come without controversy as Smithfield tried to balance food production with the fears of the virus spreading further throughout its workforce and within the city of Sioux Falls.

Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken on Thursday described a morning call with Sullivan and the local plant manager as "heated."

"They're mad. I'm mad. It's tense. They're being told by the feds to stay open, I'm being told I need to protect this city," he said. "So we're working together. Tension is good — it's good tension, it's a healthy tension — but there's certainly tension. And I think tension leads to progress."

TenHaken said if the number of cases keeps rising after the temporary closure, he'll be calling for more drastic measures at the plant.

Gov. Kristi Noem said she had spoken with Sullivan, appreciated Smithfield's "decisive action" and said the state Department of Health would work closely with the company to make sure the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would be followed both inside and outside the plant.

Outbreak hitting Hispanic, Nepali communities

More than half of the state's 66 counties have at least one recorded coronavirus case. Twenty-seven people have been hospitalized with COVID-19 and 161 have recovered from the illness, state officials say. Six South Dakotans have died due to the coronavirus.

The state reported a total of 447 confirmed coronavirus cases on Thursday, rising 54 over the previous day.

The bulk of those cases, 46 in all, were in Minnehaha County, where Sioux Falls is located. State officials said Thursday they hadn't yet determined how many of the new cases in the county stemmed from the Smithfield cluster.

Smithfield has been testing employees for the illness over the last week, which contributes to the skyrocketing number of cases in Minnehaha County, state epidemiologist Dr. Josh Clayton.

TenHaken said short of the Smithfield cases, there has been only "minimal" growth of confirmed cases in the county. But he said the outbreak is hitting the city's Hispanic and Nepali populations especially hard, with many members among the plant's workforce.

"I believe, for good reason, that the spread we're seeing at Smithfield is not necessarily happening at the plant itself. It's happening when people leave the plant and go home," TenHaken said.

TenHaken said are 80 languages spoken at the plant, which is a magnet employer for immigrants and refugees. This compounds the communication hurdles for both state and local health officials and workers at the plant and their families.

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