Trump to order meat plants to stay open in pandemic, source says. Thousands of workers already sickened by covid-19.

Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a briefing in response to the coronavirus at the White House on March 20. (Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford)

President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order Tuesday mandating that meat production plants remain open to head off a food supply shortage, according to one person familiar with the coming action, despite mounting reports of plant worker deaths due to covid-19.

Trump will invoke the Defense Production Act under the order, which will classify the meat production plants as essential infrastructure that must remain open, said the person, who was not authorized to disclose details of the order. The government will provide additional protective gear for employees as well as guidance, according to the person. Trump is expected to sign the order, first reported by Bloomberg, as early as today.

Earlier Tuesday during an Oval Office meeting with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), Trump mentioned he would be making some kind of executive order but did not give details.

“We’re going to sign an executive order today, I believe,” Trump said. “It was a very unique circumstance because of liability.”

By keeping the plants open, the order would keep the government from using the most effective weapon available to force meat companies to protect their employees: closures.

At least 20 meatpacking plants have closed in recent weeks due to covid outbreaks, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents thousands of workers in meat plants across the country, said Tuesday at least 17 workers in the industry have died from the disease and at least 5,000 have been directly impacted by the virus.

“America’s meatpacking workers and our nation’s food supply are in greater danger every day that companies and leaders fail to act during this outbreak,” UFCW President Marc Perrone said in a press release. “It is clear that our food supply chain is threatened, and that is why our country’s elected and corporate leaders must act now.”

Industry analysts say pork and beef processing is already down 25% due to these outbreaks. Major meat companies, including Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and JBS USA, have repeatedly touted their essential role in maintaining the nation’s food supply — and often resisted calls from government officials and labor advocates for plants to be closed amid outbreaks.

“The food supply chain is breaking,” John Tyson, chairman of Tyson’s executive board, wrote in a full-page newspaper ad published in The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Sunday.

“We have a responsibility to feed our country. It is as essential as health care. This is a challenge that should not be ignored. Our plants must remain operational so that we can supply food to our families in America.”

But many workers say OSHA and companies have not done enough to protect them from fast-spreading outbreaks that have hobbled production and devastated rural communities in which they are based. Some workers say companies put production over their safety and have failed to provide adequate PPE and promote social distancing.

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration released interim guidance for meatpacking and processing facilities. It procedures for cleaning shared equipment and reconfiguring workstations. The guidance includes how companies can use physical barriers to create at least six feet between employees, who typically stand shoulder to shoulder in the plants.

It also calls for use of personal protective equipment and changes to attendance policies so employees aren’t penalized for taking sick leave if they have the coronavirus. But like previous CDC and OSHA guidance for workplaces in the pandemic, it is voluntary and not enforceable.

“These outbreaks that have sickened thousands and killed dozens were not inevitable in the meat industry,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former senior OSHA official who is an expert on meat processing plants. “If OSHA had started enforcement, employers like the meatpacking industry who don’t prioritize safety voluntarily would have implemented the CDC guidance and prevented these outbreaks of death and disease in meatpacking.”

Berkowitz said Trump’s decision will undercut local health officials’ power to make meat plants comply with newly-issued federal guidance that would have limited workers’ exposure to covid-19.

“The president has just undermined all efforts to stop the spread of the disease in plants,” Berkowitz said. “He is essentially saying they must be allowed to operate and that there should be no specific requirements plants must follow to stop the spread of this disease.”

Berkowitz said Trump’s order would render meaningless guidance that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued Sunday. That guidance said that the workspace in plants should provide six feet of distance between workers and that they should no longer be facing one another.

“Without putting in specific safety requirements — beyond masks — the disease will continue to spread through the plants and into the community,” said Berkowitz.

A Smithfield worker in Missouri is suing the company in federal court for failing to take action to protect employees, including altering operations to permit social distancing and providing PPE, and discouraging employees from staying home while ill. A preliminary hearing has been set for later this week in the lawsuit, which does not name the worker who filed it. A judge has ordered Smithfield to comply with CDC and OSHA guidelines in the interim.

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