CRETE — A pork plant in Crete, Nebraska, appears to be the first major meatpacker in Nebraska to close because of the coronavirus.

Interim Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Director Pat Lopez said Monday afternoon that the plant is closing, and Crete Mayor Dave Bauer confirmed it. Bauer said the plant, which employs about 2,000 people, will close Wednesday.

"(It) is too bad that it had to come to this, but I do applaud them for what they are doing to keep the employees safe and to be able to get on top of it before it gets worse," he said.

Smithfield Foods declined to directly address reports that the plant will close.

“The company will make an announcement if there are material changes to its operations," a spokeswoman for Smithfield Foods said Monday afternoon.

Eric Reeder, president of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 293, which represents workers at the Crete plant, said he heard that the plant's last day will be Wednesday.

"I don't have a lot of details yet because the plant manager called me this morning," he said. "At that point, I started asking questions about worker pay, how long they would be down ... he didn't have an answer."

Reeder said his understanding was that after the Nebraska National Guard ramped up testing in Crete last week, a large number of tests for plant workers came back positive this weekend.

"That had to have prompted their decision," he said.

He assumes that Smithfield will sanitize the plant and possibly try to install more dividers between workers "to try to get a fresh start."

A total of 47 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, have been confirmed among Smithfield workers, according to Public Health Solutions, the local public health department that includes the Crete area.

The number of positive cases in the area jumped over the weekend after two large testing efforts. Saline County has gone from its first case on April 14 to nearly 90 cases two weeks later. 

Dr. Josue Gutierrez, whose clinic, Saline Medical Specialties, treats many of the employees and their families, said the closure was welcome.

What's happening in Saline County is happening in other meatpacking communities, he said.

"If we're not doing things quickly enough, we can get to this point," he said. "The right thing is being done, it's a good idea to stop production."

Also important, he said, is for the residents to commit to social distancing, face masks and restrained activity in the days ahead.

"Quite honestly, as a community, we're in this together," he said.

Jack Cochnar, executive director of the Crete Chamber of Commerce, said he noticed a lot more people wearing masks and taking precautions in downtown Crete on Monday. There seems to be more "alertness," he said.

Smithfield Foods has closed plants in Illinois, Wisconsin and Missouri because of the virus.

The company, whose workforce is unionized, has taken a number of steps to slow the spread of the virus, including thermal scans to identify employees with elevated temperatures; increased personal protective equipment, including face shields and masks, plexiglass and other physical barriers on the production floor and in break rooms; social distancing where possible and increased cleaning and sanitation resources.

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