COVID-19 outbreaks at IL meat processing plants prompt some to call for shutdown

CHICAGO (WLS) -- As the number of infections continue to rise at the nation's meat processing plants, a small group of doctors gathered in Chicago's Back of the Yards neighborhood Tuesday to call on the governor to shut them down.

"We want the slaughterhouses to close, as they are a place where over 16,000 workers have gotten COVID," said Dr. Ashwani Garg of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a doctors' animal rights group. "It's an assembly line, and you have to have people right next to each other."

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According to a recent tally, as of Monday COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported in at least 215 plants nationally, including 10 in Illinois.

Among them is Rose Packing near Midway Airport and the Smithfield plant in St. Charles, which both had to temporarily close in April.

"I have a long list of factory complaints, it's not just Smithfield," said State Rep. Karina Villa (D-IL 49). "Smithfield is the one that got the attention."

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For workers, the choice is a difficult one: go to work with fears of contracting the disease, or stay home and risk losing a job.

"I was very afraid," said Calvin Beck, former meat processing plant employee "I thought they would shut it down but, you know, they had us working. I had to make ends meet. I had to come to work."

But while food processing plants remain hot spots for infection, some say things are slowly getting better at larger plants like Smithfield, where Rep. Villa said at least four workers have died.

"They have reduced the amount of people per line, they have, in the common areas, they have put dividers, for example in the locker rooms where people have to be in tighter quarters," she said. "They've provided the appropriate protective equipment for people."

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