South Dakota city plans 'thank you' for meatpacking workers

A South Dakota city that was among the earliest to be hit by a major coronavirus outbreak in a meatpacking plant is planning a parade to thank workers, who organizers say have been unfairly stigmatized.

Several friends who planned Wednesday's event said they hope hundreds of people will show up to hold signs of thanks outside a Smithfield Foods pork plant that closed after hundreds of employees were infected with COVID-19. Mayor Paul TenHaken is among those planning to attend.

Smithfield employees have faced stigmatization and anxiety even after the plant temporarily shuttered. A sign on the door of a local bar asked the plant's employees not to come inside, and one employee has had had panic attacks as she prepares to go back to work, said Nancy Reynoza, who runs a Latino advocacy organization called ¿Que Pasa? Sioux Falls,

Natalie Eisenberg, one of the organizers of the parade, said it's an attempt to bring a positive message to the employees and reach out as neighbors. They will also be paying for a billboard to thank the employees.

“We wanted them to feel the warmth of the community around them and make them smile,” she said.

Pork producer closes Sioux Falls facility after 'number' of employees test positive for COVID-19

Some workers and advocates for immigrants were bothered when Gov. Kristi Noem appeared on Fox News on April 13 and seemed to place blame on the living situations of Smithfield employees, many of them immigrants. Other elected officials made similar remarks. Noem later said she meant only that the focus of health officials had shifted to stopping infections in the community after the Smithfield plant closed.

“We certainly thank them for their work and their dedication providing for our nation's food supply," she said at a press briefing on Tuesday.

Some community advocates said the thank-you parade, while appreciated, doesn't provide meaningful help for the immigrant communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the outbreak at Smithfield.

Reynoza said she would have appreciated it if the mayor had shown up to protest the conditions at Smithfield while the plant was operating at the beginning of April.

“There could have been a lot more done when the outbreaks happened by all these people and nothing has been done until now,” she said.

TenHaken, the mayor, has struck a balance between Smithfield and its employees since the outbreak. Shortly after the plant announced it would close in April, he said, “There is an underlying sense of almost treating Smithfield employees like lepers in our community right now, and that’s not appropriate.”

But he's also consistently praised the company's efforts to protect employees and acknowledges its status as one of the largest employers in the city.

That's frustrated community organizations who have pressed for more action from officials. Coronavirus infections have disproportionately affected minorities in South Dakota. While almost 85% of the state's population is white, minorities have accounted for greater than two-thirds of confirmed cases.