The Tyson Foods poultry processing plant in Portland. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Tyson Foods will idle its Portland plant this weekend after an outbreak of COVID-19 there.

The multinational meat giant will suspend operations at the 150,000-square-foot poultry processing plant Saturday, Sunday and Monday so it can conduct deep cleaning and sanitizing of the production areas and common areas while universal employee testing is underway, said spokesman Worth Sparkman.

“We’ve been evaluating and implementing ways to promote more social distancing in our plants,” he said.

While the plant is closed, a third-party contractor hired by Tyson Foods will collect samples from the 400 people who work at the St. John Street facility and send them to a private lab that will conduct the testing. Results will be reported to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Maine CDC had earlier recommended that it conduct the testing at its Augusta lab.

When production resumes, Tyson will have COVID-19 prevention measures in place, Sparkman said. Workers will be screened for fever and other symptoms at the start of each shift, they must wear company-provided masks at all times, and monitors will be in place to help enforce social distancing.

Tyson has begun using infrared thermometers to check the temperature of workers before they enter the facility, increased the distance between workers on the production floor, and installed workplace dividers, Sparkman said.

Tyson wouldn’t say when it had put these measures into place at its Portland plant. The first Tyson worker tested positive for COVID-19 on April 16. Twelve days later, on April 28, Maine CDC found two more cases, which met the three-case threshold constituting an outbreak.

The confirmation of an outbreak spurred state and company officials to embark on universal screening of all facility employees, and with that, the number of confirmed infections increased. By Wednesday morning, the total number of Tyson cases had risen to eight, and by Thursday it was 10.

It is believed to be the first workplace outbreak in Maine outside of a health care facility.

It wasn’t clear when Tyson learned it had multiple infected employees or when those infected had stopped working – Sparkman would not answer that question in a series of emails – but they were not working as of Wednesday, the day that state health officials revealed the outbreak during its daily news briefing.

Instead, Sparkman outlined the steps that Tyson Foods has taken since the pandemic first hit the country.

Tyson has changed its short-term disability benefits during the COVID-19 crisis to encourage sick workers to stay home, Sparkman said. Employees unable to work because of illness will now receive 90 percent of their normal pay without having to wait the typical five days to apply, he said.

But Tyson is also rewarding those who continue working. In the same company bulletin touting the newly relaxed sick policies, Tyson outlined a new “thank you” employee campaign that will pay out $500 bonuses in July to employees with good attendance records in April, May and June.

More than a half dozen U.S. meat processing plants have closed because of COVID-19 outbreaks over the past month. Meat processing employees are believed to be highly susceptible because of plant conditions, standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the line and congregating in crowded locker rooms and cafeterias.

Because the workers are vulnerable, so too is the supply of meat, health officials say.

Tyson last week shut down a major plant that is critical to the nation’s food supply after it was blamed for causing a COVID-19 outbreak in Waterloo, Iowa. But President Trump issued an executive order Tuesday requiring meat processing plants to remain open “to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans.”

Tyson Foods Chairman John Tyson has taken out full-page ads in national newspapers urging federal, state and local health officials to work with the nation’s meat processing plants to find a way to stay open despite the new health challenges posed by COVID-19.

In the ads and on the company’s webpage, Tyson sounded the alarm: “the food supply chain is breaking.”

“We’re being forced to shutter our doors,” Tyson warned. “This means one thing – the food supply chain is vulnerable. … We have a responsibility to feed our country. It is as essential as healthcare.”

Despite the outbreak, a spokesman for the food safety arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture said there is no evidence the frozen stuffed chicken breasts produced at Tyson’s Portland facility – under brand names such as Barber Foods, Butcher Made, Chef’s Pantry and Cloverdale Farms – are unsafe to eat.

“We are not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging,” the spokesman said in an emailed statement. “However, it is always important to follow good hygiene practices when handling or preparing foods.”

Tyson Foods bought the 150,000-square-foot plant on St. John Street that had once been Barber Foods in 2017 as part of a $4.2 billion acquisition of AdvancePierre of Ohio. When AdvancePierre bought Barber in 2011, about half the employees lost their jobs, but it remained one of Portland’s biggest employers.

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