The Star Tribune has provided robust coverage on the health inequities that Minnesota’s COVID-19 cases, the concentration of COVID-19 in meatpacking, and how the pandemic has heightened the need for more permanent, affordable housing. Each topic is important in its own right.
But segmented coverage misses an important connecting thread: Minnesota’s lack of affordable housing options is an important driver of where and how COVID has spread through meatpacking plants, especially in greater Minnesota. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that 87% of COVID patients infected at meatpacking plants are racial and ethnic minorities, and COVID’s path illustrates how Minnesota’s segregation is not confined to the metro area.
COVID in meatpacking started in April when Smithfield’s Sioux Falls, S.D., plant closed after almost 800 workers tested positive. From there, COVID spread east to Worthington (350 on May 5), and then north to Windom, Marshall and Willmar (390 by May 12).
The path is predictable because work on health, housing and related projects in greater Minnesota have shown that the towns where meatpacking plants are located often don’t have enough housing for the people who work in the plants.
Research into affordable-housing debates in several greater Minnesota cities before the housing crash found a public outcry ranging from veiled to direct racism. Comments in some towns included fear of lowering the city’s home values, fear of becoming a majority-immigrant city and fear of compromising the local school system. Public comments were sharp and unkind, and as a result some affordable-housing developments didn’t happen.
Cities, meatpacking companies and workers found ways around the lack of affordable housing. The JBS plant in Worthington runs three buses daily from Sioux Falls to Worthington and back to transport workers.
Another adaptation was ethnic communities concentrating in small towns between cities where plants are located. Take Walnut Grove as an example. Once home to Laura Ingalls Wilder, the town has been almost 50% Hmong since the mid-2000s. Today Karen immigrants are moving to the town nestled between three towns with large meatpacking plants: Worthington (54 miles south), Windom (44 miles east) and Marshall (36 miles west).
This network of small towns housing workers for meatpacking plants in several bigger neighboring towns means that one town — or even one home — can be the connecting point for multiple meatpacking plants on any given night. Minnesota’s COVID spread of outbreaks follows this line, starting in the west, then traveling north.
By the end of May the virus reached north; Willmar, Cold Spring and St. Cloud saw outbreaks of COVID cases. The plants in these communities and Marshall share one key difference from the previously infected places: They processed poultry, not pork. Somali immigrants can work in poultry plants without compromising their religious beliefs. The Somali community was significantly impacted in this new wave of cases.
The pattern fits reported language in COVID cases. On May 26, the Star Tribune reported that early cases “were predominantly English-speakers; then came a wave of Spanish-speaking patients.” At the date of reporting 57% of non-English COVID patients spoke Spanish and 28% spoke Somali.
Long Prairie, northwest of St. Cloud, saw its outbreak in early June despite safety measures in the plant. The city of 3,300 had almost 400 cases, with more than 250 of those people working at the processing plant. Long Prairie has a significant immigrant population that works at the plant, but it also doesn’t have enough housing for all of the workers needed.
In a 2017 health project there, the city’s poor housing stock was a constant point of concern: Locals told stories of dilapidated rental housing overrun with cockroaches and a trailer parks on the outskirts of town where up to six men would live in a dilapidated trailer to work at meatpacking plants during the week, then all return to their families in St. Cloud or the Twin Cities on weekends.
COVID-19’s six-week journey from Sioux Falls to Long Prairie, with many stops between, illustrates how housing, race and health interplay. And I hope that as we start to know better, we can start doing better.
Stephanie Devitt is owner and principal of SDK Communications + Consulting, a public affairs firm working on topics including public health and health care, housing, water and natural resources, and community development. She grew up on a farm outside of Sioux Falls, S.D., where she spent a summer working on the line at the area’s Smithfield meatpacking plant.