STORM LAKE, Iowa – It has been a cold, gray spring here as we waited for the boot to drop.
For the past couple of months, the schools, stores, restaurants and bars have been shut down. Easter seemed not to come. Lake Avenue, the main street in our town of about 15,000 where 30 dialects are spoken by an immigrant workforce, is empty. But the Tyson pork and turkey plants steam on, with more than 3,000 employees filing in day and night to grind your sausage.
Until last week, none of them had been tested for COVID-19 despite meatpacking being the hottest of hot spots.
Instead, we floated through April in a limbo of not knowing. My next-door neighbor’s adorable son, Esteban, would love to pet our two rabbits. Against my instincts, I have to shoo him away from the back door because the 7-year-old could kill us. His parents work in the packing house. We are old and vulnerable, and we don’t know.
For months, our patriotic neighbors clocked in to suit up in a tight locker-room space and worked shoulder to shoulder trimming meat as it moved down the lines at a speed that does not relent. Tyson said in April that it was providing protective equipment and temperature screening at all its plants. It loosened the sick-leave policy. But tests? Not here.
In Waterloo, Iowa, the pork plant shut down weeks ago and reopened after quarantine, cleaning and testing. Same with Columbus Junction, Iowa; the JBS pork plant in Worthington, Minn.; and the Smithfield pork plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. All around us, packing houses were going offline as workers tested positive. Yet still no tests for Storm Lake.
Why? The food supply chain could break, the Tyson and Smithfield bosses warned. President Donald Trump ordered everyone into work. But he did not call off the war on immigrants, who do almost all the work in the plants. Instead, the administration lengthened the freeze on naturalization and asylum applications. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, warned workers would lose unemployment benefits if they refused to return to a suspect workplace — contrary to state law. The cumulative effect was to heap more fear onto an already fearful people. We feel it. Latinos were afraid of Trump before. Now they’re terrified.
Finally, the state and Tyson each sent testing teams to Storm Lake on May 16. Public information is scarce. We did not know how many tests were done or how you could get one. We don’t know the local nursing home case count. We worry as the National Guard chopper lifts off from the high school parking lot with vials for processing.
When pork plant workers in Perry, Iowa, were tested, the little town of 8,000 went from a handful of cases one week to 730 the next — including 58% of the pork plant workforce. Here in Buena Vista County, we went from a dozen cases a couple of weeks ago to 662 reported on Wednesday, after only a week’s testing. We expect more, as less than a quarter of us have been swabbed.
The governor allowed churches to reopen on May 3. Pastors said they weren’t ready. Now some churches are. Tattoo parlors and bars are freed from lockdown, but most remain leery of flipping on the lights. Restaurants can run with seating limitations, but few are — nobody hankers for sit-down, Iowa Chops until they know the real score.
The rural Midwest was anxious before the pandemic. Trump’s trade wars and ethanol blunders iced exports and killed commodity markets. Workers were getting laid off from John Deere. The president’s approval numbers sank underwater in Wisconsin despite $30 billion in agricultural trade bailouts. Soy exports fell through the floor. Republican Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa) is no longer a lock for re-election this year.
Now this plague of errors. No personal protective equipment. No tests. No guidance. Trump ordered workers into potentially unsafe environments in the absence of facts and without authority, fully abetted by the governor. That put the whole county at risk.
You can imagine that this is unsettling in a place that depends on hogs and turkeys to put bread on the table. Hogs are being shot and buried for lack of slaughter capacity. The ethanol industry has collapsed. You can’t get through to unemployment on the phone. All of it — trade wars, Clorox fantasies and incompetence — is a political convulsion waiting on November.
Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa. He is author of the book, “Storm Lake: Change, Resilience, and Hope in America’s Heartland.”