Smithfield Foods to close Sioux Falls plant indefinitely amid COVID-19 outbreak

Makenzie Huber
Sioux Falls Argus Leader

Smithfield Foods will close its Sioux Falls facility until further notice, the company announced on April 12 in a news release.

The closure comes after the South Dakota Department of Health said 238 of Minnehaha’s 438 COVID-19 cases as of April 11 involve “individuals who work at Smithfield Foods.” The plant was identified as the largest hot spot in the state with about 38% of the state’s cases.

Smithfield planned to fully shutdown on April 15. The company planned to partially operate the plant through April 14 to process inventory, according to the news release.

Smithfield previously announced that it would close for three days for cleaning starting April 11 and continue through April 13.

On April 11, Gov. Kristi Noem and Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken sent a letter to Smithfield, asking operations to close for two weeks so the facility could be cleaned and employees could recover from any suspected illness. The call to action also requested that Smithfield continue to pay its 3,700 employees during the closure, though the state won’t be providing any financial aid to the company, Noem said on April 11.

“The industry, like the country, needs to fight its way through this situation — and it will — and make adjustments as it changes,” said Maggie Seidel, Noem’s senior adviser and policy director, in an emailed statement on April 12. “As a critical infrastructure industry in our nation’s food supply, the governor is committed to working with them to get through this.”

TenHaken said the decision to call for closure at Smithfield Foods came after confirmed COVID-19 cases among plant workers spiked for a third consecutive day.

Protesters at TenHaken’s announcement on April 11 demanded a 14-day shutdown. Employees spoke to the Argus Leader last week about conditions at Smithfield, asking that the company implement more precautions and close for two weeks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the plant.

“I am thankful Smithfield is taking the right steps to protect the health of their employees and our community during this pandemic,” TenHaken said in an emailed statement on on April 12. “When Smithfield is ready to safely restore its operations, the city is ready to help them further protect the health of their employees and prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

While the plant is making the decision to close indefinitely, President and CEO Kenneth Sullivan said in the news release that the closure “is pushing our country perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply.”

“We have continued to run our facilities for one reason: to sustain our nation’s food supply during this pandemic,” Sullivan said. “We believe it is our obligation to help feed the country, now more than ever. We have a stark choice as a nation: we are either going to produce food or not, even in the face of COVID-19.”

The release said the plant will be shut down until “further direction is received from local, state and federal officials.” Employees will be compensated for the next two weeks, but there was no mention of payment if the plant is closed for longer.

A car sporting a sign calling for a safe and healthy workplace drives past Smithfield Foods, Inc. during a protest on behalf of employees after many workers complained of unsafe working conditions due to the COVID-19 outbreak on Thursday, April 9, in Sioux Falls.