WASHINGTON — Faced with worries of a meat shortage caused by the coronavirus, President Donald Trump plans to order meat-processing plants to remain open and will try to protect them from legal liability, officials said Tuesday.
Trump plans to declare meat plants as critical infrastructure, and cite the Defense Production Act to justify an order to keep them open, said two officials familiar with the discussions, speaking on condition of anonymity because the order is not yet completed.
Trump could sign the order as early as yesterday, officials said, and it will likely cover other types of food processing facilities.
Trump also said he would issue an executive order to shield meat plants from legal liability if they are sued by employees who contract coronavirus while on the job. While Trump only mentioned Tyson Foods specifically, he suggested his order would protect other businesses from liability as well.
The order would be designed to protect businesses in court if they are sued, but would likely be challenged in court. Judges would ultimately decide whether coronavirus lawsuits against businesses can go forward.
Concerns about the nation’s meat supply have been growing, as the number of meat packing facilities shuttered due to coronavirus outbreaks has accelerated over the past several weeks.
COVID-19 hot spots have broken out in southwest Kansas, where the major packers have processing plants. According to the latest numbers from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment on Tuesday, confirmed cases have soared in that region over the past week, and are at pace or running higher than the volume of cases in the Kansas City and Wichita metro areas.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Ford County, home to plants owned by National Beef and Cargill in Dodge City, had 544 confirmed cases. Seward County, with a National Beef plant in Liberal, had 422 cases. Finney County, with a Tyson plant near Garden City, had 175. The state has arranged for special quarantine housing for employees testing positive at the plants.
Across the nation, more than 4,400 meatpacking workers have tested positive for the virus, and at least 18 have died from the virus as of Tuesday morning, according to USA TODAY/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting tracking. Workers have tested positive at at least 80 plants in 26 states, and there have been 28 closures of at least a day.
USA TODAY also found that 153 of the nation’s largest meatpacking plants, about one in three, operates in a county with a high rate of COVID-19 infection, raising concerns that more workers at more plants will fall ill.
In a full-page newspaper ad over the weekend, Tyson Foods board Chairman John Tyson said "the food supply chain is breaking," and "there will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed."
Some plant employees have told reporters that Tyson did not adequately protect them from the virus, setting up the prospect of lawsuits.
Supply chain experts have mostly said a significant domestic meat shortage is unlikely, due to the large number of processing plants and resulting resiliency. But those assurances are being tested by steadily dropping production numbers from the nation’s meatpacking plants.
Department of Agriculture data show at least 838,000 fewer cattle, hogs and sheep were slaughtered for meat processing over the past week compared to the same time period last year, a 28% drop. Tuesday marked the worst day yet, with total slaughter falling 39% compared to the same day last year.
While some have offered assurances that the nation’s “cold storage,” or the amount of meat frozen in commercial warehouses, could act as a stopgap should production plummet, data indicate a limited supply. The most recent USDA figures show those supplies store only about a week’s worth of food compared to average monthly production.
Trump said Tuesday he did not fear any kind of food shortage.
"There's plenty of supply," Trump told reporters after meeting with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. "It's distribution."
The order was slammed by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
"We only wish that this administration cared as much about the lives of working people as it does about meat, pork and poultry products," said Stuart Appelbaum, the union's president. "If the administration had developed meaningful safety requirements early on as they should have and still must do, this would not even have become an issue. Employers and government must do better. If they want to keep the meat and poultry supply chain healthy, they need to make sure that workers are safe and healthy."
The food issue is a politically challenging one in the midst of a pandemic.
Some local officials said outbreaks of coronavirus at processing plants prove that the economy needs to be locked down to curb the spread of the disease. Industry leaders said their work is essential to maintaining the food supply, and are seeking protections from prospective lawsuits.
Congressional Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have said shielding companies from lawsuits will help the economy reopen after weeks of lockdowns.
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the Senate's top Democrat, questioned McConnell's idea.
"Is he saying, if an owner tells a worker he needs to work next to a sick person without a mask and wouldn’t be liable?" Schumer told reporters. "That wouldn't make sense."
Trump spoke with reporters after a meeting with DeSantis in which he lauded Florida as a model for other states seeking to reopen their economies, despite the risks of resurgences in coronavius cases.
Contributing: USA TODAY Network investigative reporter Kyle Bagenstose and Midwest Center For Investigative Reporting reporter Sky Chadde.