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Iowa mayor is fighting to protect workers at a local food plant

(CNN) — Waterloo, Iowa, Mayor Quentin Hart was already fighting to get his state to impose stricter measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic when he heard about a potential outbreak at the local Tyson Foods processing plant.

The plant is one of the city’s largest employers, with some 3,000 workers, many of them immigrants and people of color who don’t have the best access to health care. It’s also a key part of the food supply chain, and disruptions there could impact the flow of goods from producers to consumers, which would have consequences that reach outside of Iowa’s borders.

Hart, a Democrat and the first African American mayor of Waterloo, says he wants the plant closed immediately, but Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds is not ordering it shut down and is instead instituting new screening procedures for workers. It’s just the latest example of Hart pushing a more aggressive approach on coronavirus in one of only a handful of states with no statewide shelter-in-place order.

Even before hearing about potential Covid-19 cases, Hart told us in a virtual interview that he and other local officials were concerned that workers at the plant did not have adequate protection from the virus. The sheriff and top health official in Black Hawk County, which includes Waterloo, went into the plant last week and were not satisfied that they were taking proper precautions.

“You have a lot of English-language learners as well. And we want to make sure that the necessary social distancing CDC policies are there,” Hart said.

“I think it’s important that we ensure that those that are doing so much, providing food for us, helping Iowa’s agricultural basin, to make sure that we give them all the support and make sure that every condition that they’re working in is the same condition that we would want to work in ourself, from mayor all the way down to those that are working in our plants,” he added.

Reynolds announced Friday there would be 2,700 Covid-19 tests at the plant along with contact tracing, as well as a requirement that workers wear masks and maintain social distancing. These measures will be communicated in the multiple languages spoken by workers at the plant.

The goal, Reynolds said, was to “protect the employees and ultimately keep the plant up and going so that we can keep the flow of food going out of Iowa and throughout the nation.”

It is unknown how many Covid-19 cases there are at the Tyson plant but health officials in Black Hawk County are calling it an outbreak. In a statement provided to CNN, Tyson Foods declined to provide the number of Covid-19 positive cases in its facilities, citing the privacy of their team members.

The company said it’s “working diligently to keep our team members across the country safe and have been successfully collaborating with leaders in other plant communities in addressing COVID-19 concerns.”

“We’ve been working with local, state and federal officials and are following CDC guidelines. Our primary focus is protecting our people while continuing to fulfill our critical role of feeding families in this community and around the nation, while providing market continuity for hundreds of area hog farmers,” a spokesperson for Tyson said.

Hart says he saw what happened with hospitals on the coasts — especially New York — and worries about whether hospitals in Waterloo have the capacity to help if things get really bad.

“If we have one of our plants that has a large outbreak that may happen, it’s going to put such a strain on our two hospitals and our people’s clinic that we may not be able to deal with those challenges,” Hart said.

Hart says his immediate concern is for the workers at the plant, and he insists the food is still safe.

But he also recognizes the impact this could have on the food supply chain.

“Iowa is an agricultural base, and I always tell people, we don’t just feed our communities, we feed the entire world,” he said.

He made clear that he understands there could be a “perception” problem in closing a plant like Tyson that could have a long-term economic impact in his city — but safety comes first.

“Our state is just an incredible place, from pork products to chicken to corn, and we are important to our national and global economy, and we just want to make sure that we have a fine balance of safety versus gross domestic product,” he added

Pushing the governor for more restrictions

Hart’s aggressive approach toward the coronavirus did not start with the Tyson plant. He has been sounding the alarm for almost a month.

On Thursday, the governor agreed to a new order for the northeast region of Iowa, which includes Waterloo, that puts more limits on “social, community, recreational, leisure, and sporting gatherings” but stops short of a shelter-in-place mandate.

We first talked Thursday morning before the governor’s move and Hart was emphatically, yet diplomatically, describing how urgently he was pushing the Republican governor — both in private and in public — to act.

He says he is grateful the governor put some new restrictions in place, but a city aide said it is written in such a vague way that different cities are interpreting it in different ways.

For example, Hart is closing the golf courses in Waterloo. They are remaining open in Cedar Falls, the next town over.

For weeks, Hart has used whatever power he could as mayor to get Waterloo residents to stay at home. He, along with the Waterloo City Council, even found an emergency powers code in the law.

“Section 372.14, number two on that list states that emergency situations, public disaster situations, that the mayors of cities have the ability to take enforcement actions,” explained Hart.

He said the City Council passed a proclamation in mid-March giving him emergency powers to make some local decisions without having to go through the usual hoops to get funding.

They opened an emergency operations center so that officials from the school districts, law enforcement and the fire department could more easily coordinate.

Still, without the governor’s order, he could not close businesses in his own city.

Instead, he spent a lot of time strongly suggesting — pleading with his residents — to stay home as much as possible.

“Just that consistent message in an order that’s saying we need you to stay safe at home,” Hart said.

He also spent a lot of time working with businesses still up and running to be as safe as possible.

“We are one of those communities that we are going to see our peak come over the next week, week and a half. So we’re just starting that trend upward with the amount of cases that we have locally. So it’s a rough time, but if you know any Midwestern, a small community like Waterloo, Iowa, is pretty tough as well,” he said.

When we first talked Thursday morning, despite his differences with the governor over how aggressively to act to prevent Covid-19 spreading, he repeatedly went out of his way to emphasize how well he and the governor were working together.

Then, a few hours later, the mayor called back to give us the news about the governor’s change of heart on social gatherings for the part of Iowa that includes Waterloo.

He said he hoped his lobbying had an impact, but was once again cautiously gracious.

“I believe it’s a great first step to getting a handle over the magnitude that may potentially exist. But until I know the count of how many have been infected, until I know that every person has been tested, until I know that CDC recommendations, Black Hawk County public health department recommendations are put into place, I still will not be able to sleep until those things happen,” he said.

The mayor’s father can no longer defy him by playing golf

Before the governor’s new order, when Hart was trying to use his power of persuasion to get his Waterloo constituents to stay at home, he had mixed results, even with his own parents.

“I get to be the parent now, ‘Don’t you go out that house. Call me, call my sister, call someone. But you better not go out that house,’ ” Hart said, describing his conversations with his parents.

He said his mother listened. His father did not.

“My dad, he’ll go out, because our golf courses are still open,” he said Thursday morning, before the governor’s new order.

“They’re practicing social distancing, one per cart,” he added.

Now public spaces like playgrounds and golf courses are finally off limits in Waterloo, which is exactly what he had been asking the governor to do, though he joked that his father will not be too happy with this particular success.

Schools are closed in Iowa. The governor announced Friday that they would stay closed through the end of the school year. Hart’s family is just like families all across the country — trying to adjust to the new normal. His wife is the vice principal at a local elementary school and is on Zoom meetings all day trying to maintain distance learning for the students. Meanwhile, his 8-year-old daughter is trying to do her part. She made something for her parents to use when they go to the grocery store.

“This thing when you go into a grocery store and you need to do a cart, it flips down on your hands and you can push the cart,” is how Hart described it.

He said she had also concocted a new hair product.

“It doesn’t make a difference if you’re white, black, Latino. She believes it works the same on everyone,” he explained proudly.

Businesses getting creative too

Despite his frustration with the lack of a consistent stay-at-home order for so long, Hart said many businesses did it on their own.

He said other companies are joining in the effort to use their tools to help with the effort against Covid-19.

“From McKenna Pro Photography, from John Deere, which is a global company, to The Sulky, which creates high-end buggies, they’re taking their time and they’re making masks for our communities,” said Hart.

“We’ve seen the resiliency, we’ve seen incredible business acumen, and people be able to change on the go, on the fly to make things happen for our safety,” said Hart.

Like other mayors we have talked to on the front lines, Hart says he talks as often as he can to other mayors. As he prepares for a surge, he has reached out to some who have more cases than Waterloo to learn “best practices.”

One of the problems he is bracing for is the disproportionate impact the coronavirus has on communities of color.

“We are about 70,000 people, 16, 17% African American, Bosnian, Congolese, Burmese. We have tremendous diversity in our city, and that messaging, whether it’s language-wise or whether it’s town hall virtual forums so that people can ask us the question, we’ve been trying to be accessible to our community,” he said.

We asked Hart the question we put to other mayors we have been talking to: What keeps him up at night?

“The assurance that people in this community, in my community, that they’re safe,” he said plainly.

“I think of the people that may not have the means that I have, I think about the children that are at home that may not be in great situations. The strain that this is putting on our entire community. I think about the people that are working at Tyson’s. I think about just people, and the ability to return back to some semblance of, I’ll say, normal life.”