Green Bay meatpacking plant linked to 189 COVID-19 cases closes and a federal investigation is underway

A meatpacking plant at the center of the COVID-19 outbreak in Green Bay was temporarily closed by its owner Sunday, the latest such facility to be shuttered across the nation as federal authorities investigate safety at the operation.

At least 189 cases have been linked to JBS Packerland, Brown County officials said Friday. The plant is among five such operations nationwide ordered to close after workers tested positive for the coronavirus.

The closure comes as the number of Wisconsinites who have tested positive for COVID-19 grew by 224 Sunday — the fifth day in a row that new cases exceeded 200. The growth has been attributed largely to the meat plant outbreaks. At the same time, testing has been increasing, state data shows.

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On Sunday, JBS USA announced the closure of the beef plant on Lime Kiln Road in a news release: 

“Given the continued spread of coronavirus in our community and among our workforce, we have decided to voluntarily close our Green Bay facility in an effort to help flatten the curve of infections in Brown County.”

Even as the plant is closed, the fate of now-closed businesses in Wisconsin could be determined in coming days as Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home order goes before the state Supreme Court at the request of state Republican lawmakers who want it overturned.

Evers extended his original order — set to expire last Friday — until May 26. The GOP leaders are seeking to take away the Evers administration’s power to make unilateral decisions during public health emergencies and instead require lawmakers’ approval. The Republican leaders have not said what their plan would be if the high court sides with them.

The country is becoming a hodge-podge of different approaches to the virus, with some states staying locked down while others loosen restrictions

States such as Georgia and Oklahoma were among the first to begin opening, with Tennessee, Missouri, Texas and Florida expected to follow, at least in some aspects, in coming days.

States like Ohio, which moved to close faster than others, will reveal details of possible openings this week. New York and California have given no date of when restrictions may lift, though thousands of people poured onto southern California beaches amid a heatwave this weekend, despite stay-home orders.

In Wisconsin, Sunday’s relatively warm weather brought out people looking to get exercise, work on home repair projects, or just enjoy temperatures above 60 degrees with cooler air and rain looming this week.

Daniel Peralto and his son were in line at Ace Hardware on North 68th Street in Wauwatosa to get wood to build a backyard shed.

“Waiting in line makes it a little different than previous trips, but it is good we can still come here,” Peralto said.

Many new cases tied to meatpacking plants

JBS USA said they have increased efforts to protect workers at its meatpacking plants including checking employees’ temperatures, adding more personal protective equipment, areas for social distancing and frequent cleaning of the plant.

But advocates say the plant didn’t take protective measures early enough to keep workers safe.

Voces de la Frontera, a Milwaukee-based worker rights group, filed complaints about JBS and American Foods to OSHA on April 13, according to records. Voces asked for both companies to provide masks, ensure employees can practice social distancing and inform workers about positive cases.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Friday that the agency is looking into the outbreaks at the JBS and American Foods Group plants.

In addition, OSHA said Friday it was opening a new investigation into the COVID-19 safety practices of the Patrick Cudahy/Smithfield Foods meatpacking plant after a worker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel his concerns about unsafe work conditions at the plant. The man said he hadn’t received a face mask despite working closely with others.

An OSHA spokeswoman said the agency’s investigation was in response to the Journal Sentinel story.

Also, an investigation by USA Today and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found outbreaks at the meatpacking plants nationwide was more widespread than first reported.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Brown County grew to 776 Sunday — the highest positive case rate of any county in Wisconsin, exceeding Milwaukee County, according to state data. The state figured the rate based on COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents.

Despite the high rate, Brown County has had just two deaths and relatively few people hospitalized with COVID-19, according to Wisconsin Hospital Association data. In a seven-county area that includes Brown County, there are 31 COVID-19 patients, half of them in the ICU. Tests are pending for another 28 patients. Statewide, there are 341 people hospitalized with COVID-19.

Many of Brown County’s cases appear tied to workplaces and therefore younger people were infected, but the virus appears to be hardest on older people.

Roughly 40% of the 1,400 hospitalized in the state for COVID-19 are 70 or older, and 70% of those who have died are 70 and older, according to state data.

The recent increases in positive cases in Wisconsin follow a spike in the daily number of tests given, part of a push by the state to expand testing beyond just those seriously ill with COVID-19.

As positive tests jumped, fatalities from coronavirus continued what appeared to be a  downward trend, with six deaths on Sunday. There have been a total of 272 deaths in Wisconsin, the state reported. Milwaukee County reported 151 of the total.

Nice Sunday weather sends people to the stores

On Sunday, Milwaukee area Ace Hardware stores had packed parking lots and Home Depot, which limited store capacities to 150 people, had lines out the door.

Brain Vandermoon, a local contractor, said he can get the things he needs for the few jobs he has, which have declined since the economy slowed down from the coronavirus.

“For the little bit of work I have, I am glad I can come here to get the things I need,” Vandermoon said.

When he went to Home Depot on West Holt Avenue on Sunday, it was the first time he had seen a line out the door, which had about 40 people in it.

“I kind of figured this might be happening,” he said. “Everyone is becoming their own home improvement specialist now. I’m sure we’ll be busy when this is all over to fix some of these projects.”

Erin Lally was in line to get spray paint for a bookshelf she had been meaning to freshen up.

“It’s nice to have time to do the projects I’ve been putting off,” she said.

Since coronavirus concerns have spread in the Milwaukee area, she has been a little more hesitant to go to stores and when she does, she goes straight for what she needs and doesn’t browse around like she used to.

Lally was at Home Depot the week before and there was a line, so she wasn’t too surprised to see one Sunday.

“I pulled up and saw the line,” she said. “I had almost forgot, like, ‘oh yeah, this is how the world is now.’”

Reporters Jordyn Noennig and Benita Mathew contributed to this article

Contact John Diedrich at (414) 224-2408 or jdiedrich@journalsentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter at @john_diedrich, Instagram at @john_diedrich, LinkedIn or Facebook.

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