Poultry worker advocates urge city council to act after spike in COVID-19 cases

Advocates rallied in April to support poultry workers who have continued to work throughout the pandemic in close proximity to one another, making them susceptible to the spread of the virus. (File photo by Randi B. Hagi)

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Concern about the spread of COVID-19 in area poultry plants came to the forefront of Tuesday’s Harrisonburg City Council meeting, as 12 city residents representing a variety of grassroots organizations petitioned the council to ask Gov. Ralph Northam to dial back reopening of businesses in order to protect workers.

The council gave the members of the public opportunities to have their say — and voiced their concern and support for poultry workers — but took no action directly on the residents’ requests.   

Michael Snell-Feikema, a member of the group Community Solidarity with Poultry Workers, cited an email he received from Dr. Laura Kornegay, health director of the Central Shenandoah Health District, which said there are 317 cases of the virus among employees of the seven poultry plants in the Shenandoah Valley.

“I am happy to report that the trajectory of the cases related to poultry plants has improved over time,” Kornegay wrote. “The plants have been receptive to feedback from the health department, and they have worked to implement additional safeguards over time.”

Other residents who called in during public comment also cited the email, which Snell-Feikema had shared with them earlier in the day.  

Many of the callers demanded immediate closure of the plants and comprehensive testing for all poultry plant workers and their family members. Some also expressed concern for restaurant and retail employees, many of whom are being called back into work as local businesses reopen. Poultry workers have been particularly vulnerable to the spread of the virus because of the close proximity in which they work with one another.

In response, Mayor Deanna Reed cited Vice-Mayor Sal Romero’s advocacy for poultry workers at the local and state level; and the multiple rounds of free testing conducted by the city in conjunction with the health department and Sentara Rockingham Memorial Hospital. 

“We have not had a blind eye about the poultry workers,” Reed said. “You’re looking at a council that’s a majority people of color, who have a connection to what’s going on … we have increased our testing in Harrisonburg because we know we needed to do that.”

Reed said that 315 county and city residents were tested for free last week, and more free testing is to come. Rockingham County is offering 300 free tests Wednesday from 2:30 to 6:30 p.m at SRI International on Research Drive in Harrisonburg, and the city is offering 500 free tests on Thursday, split between Faith Community Church and the Eastern Mennonite University Commons between 2 and 6 p.m. City and county residents can get tested at any of those locations, Reed said.

“This pandemic is very personal to me,” Romero said. His wife had COVID-19 for two weeks, as have at least five people in his family, he said. “My mom and dad have to get up and go to work every day” in the poultry industry, he said.

Romero asked callers to be respectful of the council in their comments and encouraged them to also speak with the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors about the poultry plants in their jurisdiction. 

CARES Act funds en route to Harrisonburg

City Manager Eric Campbell told the council that staff have been researching the parameters of — as well as lobbying state officials for flexibility in using — federal funds the community will receive as part of the COVID-19 recovery measure Congress passed earlier this spring. 

Campbell said city officials are looking into options such as “business loans” and “rental and housing assistance … to be sure we’re maximizing the use of the funds that we have.” 

He said he plans to bring a spending recommendation to the council at a future meeting.

Michael Parks, the city’s communications director, told The Citizen in an email that the city expects to receive $4.6 million in federal CARES Act funds, which will be distributed through the state government. But he said it is “still too early” to know what programs are eligible to receive money and by when.

Also in the meeting:

  • The council voted unanimously to maintain the existing real estate tax rate at 86 cents per $100 of assessed value. The council had entertained the possibility of raising that in order to help cover the cost of debt for the new high school and other capital projects. But the school board decided to delay the high school’s construction as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  • The council unanimously agreed to postpone the July 4 fireworks display to a later date because of the pandemic.
  • The council unanimously approved the sale of part of a city-owned lot to Kavanaugh LLC, which owns the Kavanaugh Building on North Main Street. The parcel is necessary to comply with fire and building codes. City Attorney Chris Brown explained that the owners need to renovate the building, which has been and will remain “residences for low-income individuals.” The owner has pledged to find housing for residents who are displaced during the renovations, and any resident who has lived in the building for three or more years “will be offered leases at the same rate for at least a year” after renovations are complete.
  • The council unanimously appointed Patrick Ressler to the Board of Zoning Appeals, as well as Hunter Woodard and Luis Rodriguez Hernandez to the Towing Board.

Editor’s note, May 27: the article previously referred to the county’s COVID-19 testing as happening “tomorrow,” which has been corrected to “Wednesday.”

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