COLD SPRING --  Advocates for workers of Pilgrim's Pride are urging Cold Spring officials to push to temporarily close the poultry plant and test all 1,100 workers amid the rapid spread of COVID-19.

Representatives for both employees and leadership of the poultry plant, where nearly 200 people have tested positive for COVID-19, addressed the Cold Spring City Council during their virtual Tuesday night meeting.

During the meeting, Pilgrim's Pride official Wesley Smith outlined the range of measures the plant has taken to stem the spread of COVID-19 since mid-April, including temperature checks for employees before entering the facility, staggered start and break times, and increased space in break areas. Smith says the facility is also cleaned and disinfected on a daily basis by a team of dedicated cleaners.

Natalie Ringsmuth of local organization Unitecloud and Mohamed Goni of the Greater Minnesota Worker Center said workers are calling for Pilgrim's Pride to be closed for two weeks to be cleaned, sanitized and disinfected, saying the plant cannot be effectively cleaned during normal operations.

"We talked to one of the subcontracted cleaners," Ringsmuth said. "They said there wasn't the ability to clean and disinfect the whole plant as they are working."

Workers are asking the company to pay workers for the two weeks, and only allow those who test negative for the virus to come back to work, said Ringsmuth.

"The company may have done some cosmetic enhancements," Goni said. "But right now, we know some folks who are sick and who are working."

Ringsmuth says employees are reporting many measures reported by Smith were only implemented "very recently," and are not universal across the entire facility.

"On the production floor, workers are still reporting being two feet apart," she said. "They're still arm-to-arm, and the only thing between them is a saran wrap-like divider."

Ringsmuth says workers also report using t-shirt material for masks until the beginning of May.

"As you may know, this is a very dirty job," Ringsmuth added. "Chicken juice was getting on these, and people were sweating through them. It was not enough to keep our neighbors and workers safe."

Smith said the plant has appropriate personal protective equipment and a mandatory face mask policy with around 100,000 masks in stock. Pilgrim's Pride is also in the process of building a 4,000 sq. ft. climate-controlled facility for extra space during break times.

"We will not operate the facility if we do not believe it is safe," Smith said. "We recognize people are scared and anxious and we are doing everything we can to keep this virus out of our facility."

The plant has been the site of multiple protests and walkouts in several weeks, including Monday night. Minnesota health officials confirmed 194 cases at the plant on Monday - more than double the amount reported four days earlier.

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