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N.M. meat factory sues state after COVID-19 outbreak triggers closure

By Jean Lotus
N.M. meat factory sues state after COVID-19 outbreak triggers closure
Stampede Meats sued the state of New Mexico Monday after public health officials said a processing plant in Sunland, N.M., had to close for two weeks following a COVID-19 outbreak. File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo

Nov. 9 (UPI) -- A New Mexico meat manufacturing plant is suing the state after being asked to close its doors for two weeks following six positive COVID-19 tests among its employees within four days.

Illinois-based Stampede Meat, which runs a 550-employee processing plant in Sunland, N.M., near El Paso, Texas, is challenging new state health department rules mandating that any business with four rapid-testing positive COVID-19 results within two weeks temporarily close.

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The company provides millions of pounds of meat products for stores including Costco and Walmart.

In a lawsuit filed Monday in New Mexico District Court, Stampede says closing would force the company to destroy millions of pounds of meat, which could contribute to a national shortage. The company argues it should be allowed to stay open because of President Donald Trump's executive order invoking the Defense Production Act, which allows meat factories to remain open to prevent food shortages during the pandemic.

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The state health department reported an outbreak of six positive rapid-response COVID-19 tests within four days among employees of the Sunland plant. Within two weeks, the state's watchlist showed that Stampede had 11 positive tests.

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New rules say businesses with outbreaks must temporarily close and follow deep-cleaning and workplace protocols. Failure to comply may result in criminal prosecution and/or fines, the state said.

The company said the number of employees infected was a small percentage of the overall workforce and that any employee who has tested positive has stayed home in quarantine.

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The number of positive cases in New Mexico has been rising rapidly, prompting New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to issue new, more restrictive public health orders in October that expire Friday.

As of last Friday, the New Mexico Department of Public Health reported 56,289 cases of COVID-19, with 1,130 total deaths. As of Monday, 82 percent of general beds at New Mexico hospitals were occupied, and 66 percent of ICU beds were full, the public health department said.

Stampede has had 100 cases among employees since the pandemic began, the state's environmental department spokeswoman, Maddy Hayden, told NBC.

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Last spring, as the virus spread, Stampede employees complained at least three times to New Mexico's state bureau of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that they were unable to socially distance and felt unsafe at work.

Grisham's office told KRQU that the state was confident that courts would uphold a state health order, adding that Stampede's 11 rapid responses is "so far beyond the four-case threshold that it is alarming."

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