"Social distancing is a privilege," writes Rana Ayyub about her native India (Foreign Policy, 3-28-20), but "social distancing is a privilege" here in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County as well. I am not allowed to hike in Shenandoah National Park for fear that I infect myself or someone else with the coronavirus, but workers in our many poultry plants in the Shenandoah Valley stand shoulder to shoulder all day long, day after day, processing our chicken and poultry. They have no opportunity for social distancing; they are mandated to put themselves in peril.

Harrisonburg and Rockingham County are national "hot spots" on a map correlating high rates of COVID-19 and meat/poultry-processing plants (Johns Hopkins, USDA, WHO, CDC and USA map from "Coronavirus at meatpacking plants worse than first thought," USA Today investigation finds, USA Today, 4-22-20). As I write, there are some 622 cases of COVID-19 in Harrisonburg/Rockingham County, while there are only 11 in Staunton, some 30 miles away! Hot spot! Why?

Our poultry industry has an economic impact of some $14 billion a year and provides chicken and turkey to millions of folks across the US. But the workers, deemed "essential workers" by the new ID cards they were all issued during this crisis, are not being protected from this virus like the rest of us. Schools, colleges, churches, restaurants, lots of stores shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But these hardworking folks continue to go to work every day, often working "2 inches apart," as one poultry worker put it, not the 6 feet recommended to all of us.

There have been massive outbreaks of COVID-19 all across the United States, especially in nursing homes, but also in meat and poultry-processing plants. Smithfield in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, (one hour from where I lived/worked for seven years) has over 900 confirmed cases. Iowa (my home state) has closed plants in Waterloo, Marshalltown, Columbus Junction. Minnesota has closed plants in Worthington, Austin, and other places because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

A dear and beautiful Salvadoran friend, who has dedicated 20 years of her life to working at a Shenandoah Valley poultry plant, said, with much emotion and fear in her voice, "There are so many, many people getting sick [in the plant]." She was the first one to inform us about a poultry worker who died from COVID-19 in Harrisonburg, and estimated that about 200 fellow workers in her plant were out sick last week. But she still has to go to work, to keep her job, to provide for her family, as an "essential worker," even though she worries that she may accidentally bring the virus home to her beloved family. These hardworking folks come home every day to family (who may have asthma, heart conditions, diabetes, bronchitis, be elderly). They pick up groceries, buy gas, attend to necessities.

We need to attend to them, to make sure they are safe. "Social distancing is a privilege," not only in India, but here in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.

Carol Snell-Feikema lives in Harrisonburg. 

(9) comments


Many "essential" businesses in the area have made strategic changes to their facilities to protect workers. The downtown Harrisonburg post office is an example. Managers of poultry processing plants should be similarly concerned about their employees, and similarly anxious to make modification necessary to protect their workers.


It is very good to see that you are well, Ms. Sheridan. The issue, in my opinion, with this letter is that it is heavy on virtue signaling while light on actual suggestions. Are we to assume that management in these poultry plants is unconcerned with taking measures to keep healthy imported cheap labor employees on the job?


Not to be callous here, but if you don't keep the processing plants open, people will not have food to eat. We don't shutdown plants for normal influenza which kills tens of thousands every year and we can't shut them down for COVID-19 either.


I agree with you bishop. To simply shut down these plants is not an acceptable solution. In fact, to simply shut down the country for several months is not an acceptable solution. Liberals have no commonsense at all.


What do you think should have been done?


Sister M S, the obvious thing to do is to take appropriate measures to protect those who are most vulnerable (the elderly, infirmed, those with significant health risks, etc.) by keeping them isolated, and then the rest of us should go back to work. As for the poultry plants, you're looking at a situation where lots of people work together in a confined area, which presents challenges. Requiring workers to wear masks and wash their hands often are two obvious strategies, but nothing will ever be foolproof. In short, similar precautions should be taken with this Chinese Virus as are taken with the flu. But to simply shut the country down in the fashion that we did is a huge mistake. People need to be able to work so that they can feed their families.

Benjamin Bear

Prodigalson, it's certainly important to protect those that are vulnerable. Part of that challenge is that they often need people to provide care for them. To fully isolate those vulnerable individuals would mean that those who care for them would also need to be isolated, which includes a significant percentage of our population. I would encourage folks to be mindful that allowing for an increased death rate in the interest of an improved economic situation might not sound like a significant trade off, but it certainly is when you know the people dying.

Benjamin Bear

Indeed, it's important to keep food supply chains intact. The current process simply isn't working. Perhaps production rates need to be scaled back to allow for fewer workers in the facility. This is not normal influenza, which is why it's such a challenge to address.


And I would encourage you, Benjamin, to recognize the fact that while 30 million people losing their jobs, and thus, their ability to feed their families, may be considered an acceptable trade off to you, you would see it far differently if you are the person who has been laid off, and doesn't know how they are going to make their next mortgage payment or feed their kids. You appear to be advocating for a policy that shuts the economy completely down in an attempt to create zero risk. Benjamin, that simply is not feasible, or realistic. Those of us who actually work for a living take risks every day. By simply getting into our cars and driving to work, we run the risk of getting into an automobile accident and dying. When we get out of our cars and cross the street to enter into our place of employment, we risk being run over by a bus and dying. Life is full of risk, which responsible people do everything that is reasonably within their power to mitigate, but risk can never fully be eliminated. There is always a need to strike a balance between risk and benefit. For the large majority of people who contract this Chinese Flu, it is not a death sentence. They will recover from it, and life will go on. It's time for the country to get back to work. To do anything different would be irresponsible.

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