MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Gov. Tim Walz and members of Congress gathered at the JBS plant in Worthington Wednesday to discuss the crisis that’s forced one of the nation’s largest pork producing plants to shut down.

Minnesota Department of Health says at least 239 workers at the plant have tested positive. But at Wednesday’s news conference, Minnesota Congressman Collin Peterson said he heard the number is closer to 500.

Worthington is located in Nobles County, which has the state’s second-highest amount of COVID-19 cases due to the JBS outbreak.

President Donald Trump may have ordered meat processing plants to remain open through the executive order he signed Tuesday, but JBS is open now in order to euthanize thousands of local pigs because there is nowhere to process them.

Together with Gov. Walz and Congressman Jim Hagedorn, Peterson said he is working with the plant, the workers’ union, state and federal authorities to reopen safely.

“They’re not going to be able to run the way they did before. They’re not going to be able to process 21,000 hogs a day like they did before,” Peterson said.

The Worthington plant processes 4% of the nation’s pork. Other plants around the country have also been forced to close.

“We’re about three weeks away from not having pork on the shelves in the grocery stores,” Peterson said. “And maybe that will wake people up, you know, that this is a bigger issue than just whether we’re going to go hungry or not. It’s a national security issue.”

JBS plant workers honk their horns in protest of the plant’s reopening (credit: CBS)

The news conference was interrupted by a protest outside, where workers repeatedly honked their horns. They say they’re fearful the push to reopen will come at their expense. UFCW Local 663 President Matt Utecht says he won’t let that happen.

“I’m not going to let anyone push me because I speak on behalf of those workers, and I’ll be dammed if I’m going to be pushed to open anytime sooner than it’s feasibly safe to operate,” Utecht said.

But despite the president’s order for plants to stay open, no one here knows for sure when the JBS plant will reopen, and when workers here will feel safe going back to work.

A spokesperson for JBS says the company is retrofitting the plant to allow for more social distancing. It does not have a timeline for when the facility will reopen for regular operations.

Esme Murphy

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