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Gov. Ricketts, Trump vow to keep nation's meat processing plants open

Gov. Pete Ricketts and President Donald Trump on Tuesday vowed to keep meat processing plants open in order to ensure that grocery stores remain stocked, even as workers at a pork slaughterhouse in Crete briefly walked off the job to protest the plant’s continued operation.

Trump signed an executive order requiring plants to stay open in an effort to stave off a shortage of meat because of coronavirus infections among packinghouse workers.

The order uses the Defense Production Act to classify meat processing as critical infrastructure. But advocates for worker safety say the order takes away the one tool local governments and worker representatives have to force plants to operate more safely: the threat of closure.

The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, a workplace safety advocacy group, said the order could jeopardize workers.

“Essential workplaces should never be required to stay open unless they are safe — for the sake of workers on site, and to prevent the spread of a deadly disease to co-workers, families and the public at large,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, the council’s co-executive director.

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Ricketts said keeping the plants open requires a committed effort at the local level because it means working with plant officials, the community and others to sort through social distancing and other issues. Nebraska, for example, has been tapping the expertise of infectious disease specialists at the University of Nebraska Medical Center to give pointers on infection control within the plants.

“You have to work very hard,” Ricketts said. “If the president has a plan to be able to do it, we’re happy to work with him. If we can get additional resources to do that, I’m all ears on how to make that happen.”

The order comes after industry leaders warned that consumers could see meat shortages in a matter of days after workers at major facilities tested positive for the virus.

Communities with meatpacking plants across Nebraska and the country have emerged as coronavirus hot spots. In Nebraska, the communities have the state’s highest rates for infections. Workers have tested positive at beef, chicken and pork plants in areas such as Omaha, FremontGrand IslandLexingtonHastings, Dakota City and Madison.

Hall County, home of the JBS beef plant in Grand Island, leads Nebraska with 933 known cases of the virus.

More than 20 meatpacking plants have closed temporarily under pressure from local authorities and their own workers because of the virus, including two of the nation’s largest, one in Iowa and one in South Dakota. Others have slowed production as workers have fallen ill or stayed home to avoid getting sick.

“Such closures threaten the continued functioning of the national meat and poultry supply chain, undermining critical infrastructure during the national emergency,” Trump’s order states.

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The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents 1.3 million food and retail workers, said Tuesday that 20 food-processing and meatpacking union workers in the United States have died of the virus. An estimated 6,500 are sick or have been exposed while working near someone who tested positive, the union says.

A senior White House official said the administration was working to prevent a situation in which a majority of processing plants shut down for a period of time, which could lead to an 80% drop in the availability of meat in supermarkets.

Some economists, though, have said there should be enough meat in cold storage to prevent widespread shortages, but customers may not see the same supply and variety in the meat case.

Trump on Tuesday told reporters that “there’s plenty of supply” but that supply chains had hit what he called a “roadblock.”

Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, said in a tweet Tuesday evening that Iowa’s ag economy, including its packing plants, are critical to the state and to feeding the country and world.

“Keeping it running during #COVID19 means we need to first and foremost be keeping our workers safe and healthy,” Axne tweeted. “Any requirement — from an employer or @POTUS himself — for employees to keep coming to work needs to be accompanied by ironclad answers on what protections will be in place — including PPE, routine testing and inspections, & social distancing.”

In Crete, an estimated 50 workers at the Smithfield Foods pork plant engaged in a walkout around noon after it was announced that the plant would reverse course and stay open.

State and local officials had been told Monday that the plant would temporarily close this week to contain a growing coronavirus outbreak among meatpacking workers.

“Our Crete, Nebraska, facility remains operational,” a company spokesman said Tuesday. “The company will make an announcement if there are material changes to its operations.”

The plant, roughly 25 miles southwest of Lincoln, employs about 2,000 people. At least 48 workers have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Eric Reeder, president of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 293, which represents the Crete workers, said the protest wasn’t sanctioned by the union. The leaders of the walkout went back inside and sat down to talk with managers, he said.

“The main thing is they’re scared,” he said. “Yesterday, they were told, ‘Smithfield was worried about you guys so we’re going to shut down and do some deep cleaning.’ And then when they changed it today, people kind of freaked out, thinking ‘profits in front of people.’”


The entrance to the Smithfield plant in Crete, Nebraska, has signs in multiple languages regarding the coronavirus. Roughly 50 workers briefly walked out in protest Tuesday after it was announced the plant would stay open during the coronavirus pandemic.

Reeder said plant managers seemed sympathetic to their concerns. He’s now hearing that the plant will shift to a reduced production schedule — people might work in the morning but be let out before noon.

At his daily press briefing Tuesday, Ricketts said he wasn’t involved in any decisions involving the Crete plant.

Ricketts said Smithfield executives called his office Monday morning to say they were planning to shut down the plant and then called back later in the day to say it would stay open.

“We didn’t tell them to close, we didn’t tell them to open,” Ricketts said.

But the governor said one thing’s for sure: He’d never ask that food processing plants shut down. They’re too important for food security and to keep the nation’s food chain running, he said.

“It’s who feeds us; it’s who feeds the nation,” he said.

The state is working with meat processors to expand testing for workers, including in Crete and Dakota County, which has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases in Nebraska. There is a massive Tyson beef plant in Dakota City that employs more than 4,000 people.

Ricketts said he would not endorse “Meatless May” or any other similar initiatives.

“I cannot support that in any way, shape or form,” he said. “Meat is part of a healthy diet.”

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Two of the nation’s biggest pork processing plants are currently closed. Meat processing giant Tyson Foods suspended operations at its plant in Waterloo, Iowa. And Smithfield Foods halted production at its plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The 15 largest pork-packing plants account for 60% of all pork processed in the country.

In Crete, Reeder said the plant is sending home sick workers but has to do a better job of identifying and isolating their co-workers next to and across from them on the production line. Workers who cut and package meat work in close quarters, and it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to space them 6 feet apart.

“If they’re not going to find a way to distance these people, they need to do a better job of tracing and quarantining,” he said.

Smithfield representatives say the company 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; plastic and other physical barriers on the production floor and in break rooms; social distancing where possible; and increased cleaning and sanitation.

Crete Mayor Dave Bauer said he understands both sides of the argument over keeping meat processing plants open. The Smithfield plant is Crete’s largest employer.

“We have to keep the citizens as safe as possible and keep it from spreading,” he said. “I also see the economics of it, the food supply and the farmers. From onions to chickens to hogs, if they don’t have a place to take them, what do they do with them?”

Tuesday, the outbreak tied to the Tyson Foods pork plant in Madison, 16 miles south of Norfolk in northeast Nebraska, had grown to 74 workers, according to the Elkhorn Logan Valley Public Health Department.

The Health Department, which covers Burt, Cuming, Madison and Stanton Counties, has counted 109 confirmed cases across those four counties, with 875 tests administered. Madison County accounts for 101 of those cases and three deaths.

World-Herald staff writers Paul Hammel and Martha Stoddard contributed to this report, which also includes material from the Associated Press.

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

Ann Ashford, a 'listening fanatic,' seeks to follow in her husband's political footsteps

In pitching her health care plan, Ann Ashford is offering what she believes is a realistic idea.

Much of the Democratic attention focuses on “Medicare for All.” But Ashford instead favors what’s called a public option — adding a new government-sponsored insurance plan that would compete with private health insurance.

Ashford argues she can help get the major policy change through Congress.

The argument sounds a lot like Brad Ashford — Ann’s husband and a former congressman whose decision not to run led to her entry into the 2nd District race for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brad Ashford’s career as a lawmaker was highlighted by the practical side of lawmaking — focusing on changes he could actually get passed and implemented.

Now it’s Ann Ashford’s race to run. While she showcases similar characteristics to Brad, Ann Ashford also is challenged to run on her own record.

With health care front and center, Ashford is promoting her career as a human resources professional and her administrative background in health care.

Ashford, 60, said she would bring a willingness to listen to people’s concerns, an ability to work with others and practical experience working with health care and insurance.

Ashford called her husband an inspiration.

“I’m not running for him,” Ann Ashford said. “But he is my inspiration every day.”

B.J. Reed, a retired University of Nebraska at Omaha administrator who knows both Brad and Ann Ashford, described Ann as pragmatic, saying she is focused on issues and oriented “toward solving things that need to be solved.”

Reed said Ashford fits ideologically with the 2nd District’s moderate to conservative leanings — and aligns with how her husband sees the world politically.

“Brad’s been around a long time,” Reed said, “and Ann’s been right there with him.”

Brad Ashford’s legislative career culminated with his 2014 election to the U.S. House, when he unseated eight-term Republican incumbent Lee Terry.

After a single term, Ashford was defeated by Republican Don Bacon in 2016.

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Ashford took another run at the seat two years later, but he lost in the Democratic primary to Kara Eastman. He floated the idea of another run this cycle but decided against it.

Then Ann Ashford stepped in. Ashford faces Eastman and Gladys Harrison in the May 12 Democratic primary.

Ashford said she was always interested in pursuing politics more, but “it was (Brad’s) line of work.”

Now the Ashford-Eastman political jabs take a different twist.

Eastman has accused Ann Ashford of using Republican talking points in arguing against Medicare for All. Eastman’s campaign, in a tweet, said the public option Ashford supports is an idea insurance CEOs love.

Ashford argues she’s the one Democrat who can beat Bacon and realistically pass a plan for universal health care.

Ashford cites her career experience working in health care administration and human resources designing employee benefit plans.

Ashford has a law degree from Creighton University.

Her résumé includes positions with Clarkson Hospital, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and a business connected to Nebraska Medicine and Clarkson Regional Health Services. In the private sector, she has worked with firms including Valmont Industries and Gordmans.

Ashford said she wants to help solve the country’s health insurance problems. She said she favors building on what’s in place — reinforcing the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and using the best of the private insurance system.

“I know how we get to the point where we bring (costs) down,” Ashford said in an online 2nd District candidate forum sponsored by the Nebraska Democratic Party’s Black Caucus, “so it is affordable and accessible and truly, truly universal.”

Politically, Ashford was a longtime Republican who switched parties after the election of Donald Trump, when, she said, the party left her.

She ran in 2012 for the NU Board of Regents, trying to succeed her father, Randy Ferlic, on the board. She lost by 5,046 votes to Hal Daub.

Ashford said she knows how the congressional district works and sees the entire district as her political base. “I’m going to bring everybody’s voice with me,” she said.

State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who worked with Brad Ashford in the Nebraska Legislature and donated to Ann Ashford’s campaign, said the Ashfords are close in their positions on issues. Lathrop said Ann Ashford would be someone who would cross the political aisle and work with both Republicans and Democrats.

Lathrop said he also sees Ann Ashford supporting traditional Democratic values.

“That’s why I’m comfortable supporting Ann,” he said.

Ashford also has drawn support from traditional Nebraska Democratic stalwarts including Bob Kerrey, Ben Nelson, Kim Robak and Mike Fahey.

Brad Ashford described his wife as a “listening fanatic.” “I’m just a glimmer compared to her ability to listen,” he said.

He also called her empathetic to people’s needs and better organized than he is.

Ashford called Ann’s work in health insurance and human resources her vocation.

“It’s not just her job. She really believes in it, in trying to find the right health care options for people.”

Ashford said she’s frustrated by the political divisions in Washington, D.C. But in that environment, she sees real opportunities to work together.

Ashford said during the Black Caucus forum, “I’m not running to fight. I’m not afraid of a fight. But I’m running to work.”

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'Not the panacea': Nebraska health experts weigh in on cloth masks and how much they help

From Husker-printed varieties to bandannas, cloth masks are showing up everywhere these days.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended this month that the general public wear cloth masks when they’re out and about.

And during a presentation Tuesday, Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health, repeated that everyone over age 2 should be wearing masks in public.

So why now, when data supporting mask-wearing by the general public is scant? (Health officials, by the way, still stress leaving medical masks — paper surgical masks and N95 respirators — for health care providers, who need them most.)

The main reason is that researchers know that people can spread the novel coronavirus for a couple of days before they begin to experience symptoms: dry cough, fever, difficulty breathing, headache, muscle pain, chills and a sudden loss of taste or smell. Some infected people who never develop symptoms also can spread the virus.

But Khan and others stress that mask-wearing comes with a few caveats.

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Masks are only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to curtailing the coronavirus. First comes social distancing — staying home as much as possible, limiting gatherings to 10 people and maintaining a 6-foot distance between you and other people when you are out. Then comes good hygiene, namely washing your hands frequently and not touching your face.

As the CDC has said, masks are to be worn in addition to such measures, not as a replacement for them.

“The masks are not the panacea,” Khan said. “You have to do everything else with the masks.”

Public health officials, in fact, are using the term “face covering” to describe cloth masks so as not to oversell the protection that cloth masks provide, said John Lowe, UNMC’s assistant vice chancellor for interprofessional health security training and education.

Some health officials remain concerned that face coverings could provide people with a false sense of security and make them less rigorous about social distancing.

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Dr. Anne O’Keefe, senior epidemiologist at the Douglas County Health Department, said cloth masks really are intended to protect other people from the wearer in case the person with the mask happens to have the virus.

Called source control, it’s done for the same reason health care providers now require people visiting doctor’s offices to don masks. It can keep virus-containing droplets produced when a sick person coughs or sneezes from landing on someone else or on a surface.

Masks also may protect people from droplets produced by others when they cough, sneeze, talk or sing. Evidence for that, however, is less firm.

For the general public, O’Keefe said, wearing a cloth mask to a grocery store is something you do to protect other people.

“I wear the mask for you; you wear the mask for me,” she said.

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However, other cautions come with mask-wearing. A loosely fitting cloth mask will have gaps around the edges. Air containing infectious particles could flow through and get trapped around the nose and mouth. Health care professionals test the fit of their N95 masks to make sure they provide an adequate seal.

Another concern is that people who aren’t used to wearing masks could contaminate them while putting them on or taking them off, said Joshua Santarpia, an associate professor of pathology and microbiology at UNMC.

People also tend to adjust them frequently, meaning they could contaminate them by touch.

On the plus side, Santarpia said, the masks could prevent people from touching their faces.

Dr. Alison Freifeld, a professor of infectious diseases at UNMC, has provided some rules for people wearing cloth masks:

  • Use them no more than three or four hours at a time, then wash them in hot water and dry them thoroughly before the next use.
  • Wash hands for 20 seconds before putting on a mask and after taking it off.
  • Don’t touch the outside of the mask while wearing it or touch your face under the mask.
April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

What to expect Saturday when Warren Buffett finally speaks amid coronavirus pandemic

When the nation fell hard into the Great Recession, Warren Buffett was a calm voice amid the storm, assuring jittery Americans that the country in the end would emerge as strong as ever.

Buffett has been largely quiet since the nation suddenly plunged into another economic crisis, this time due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But his silence will end Saturday, when Buffett holds a most unusual, online-only annual meeting with his Berkshire Hathaway shareholders.

Shareholders and the wider world will be tuned in as the socially distanced Berkshire chairman weighs in on the future of the national and world economies — many probably hoping to again hear some soothing words from Omaha’s oracle.

“As he has said in the past, we have been through so much as a country this past couple hundred years,” said Paul Lountzis, principal in a Reading, Pennsylvania, investment firm that bets heavily on Berkshire stock. “This too shall pass. That’s how he looks at the world.”

Saturday also should provide a window into whether Buffett has taken advantage of the recent cratering of the stock market to do some bargain hunting with the firm’s massive cash reserves.

That could include buybacks of Berkshire’s own stock, which in recent weeks has been down as much as 30% from its previous high.

“I sure hope so,” said Edward Jones analyst James Shanahan, who is among those impatient with Buffett’s cautious approach to deploying capital in recent years. “He has a substantial amount of cash, and a lot of good companies were substantially cheaper, including his own.”

Buffett announced in early March that the annual “Woodstock of Capitalism” wouldn’t be held in Omaha this year because of concern about spread of COVID-19. The meeting in recent years has drawn as many as 30,000 Berkshire and Buffett fans from around the world.

“I’m depressed,” said Lountzis, who for the first time in three decades won’t be making his annual pilgrimage to Omaha. For Lountzis and many other longtime shareholders, the Omaha meeting is always a time for celebration and rejuvenation.

The business part of this year’s meeting will instead be livestreamed beginning at 3 p.m. Saturday on Yahoo’s website, with an abbreviated Q&A session featuring Buffett and Berkshire Vice Chairman Greg Abel.

Charlie Munger, Buffett’s right-hand man and the most senior Berkshire vice chairman, won’t be there, the 96-year-old apparently deciding not to travel from his home in California.

Since canceling the meeting, Buffett has had little to say on how he sees the economic environment, and some observers have taken notice.

On Feb. 24, as the first handful of cases were springing up around the country, he sat down with CNBC’s Becky Quick, one of his business journalists of choice, calling the pandemic “scary stuff.”

He did a subsequent March 10 interview with Yahoo Finance. Both of those appearances came well before the market hit bottom on March 23.

“It seems the kind of environment where you would expect Warren to be more visible, and disappointingly he wasn’t,” Shanahan said.

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Lawrence Cunningham, a George Washington University professor who has written several books on Buffett, said he doesn’t fault the Berkshire founder for saying little.

He probably just didn’t want to address the issue until he had more confidence about where the economy is headed in the short term, Cunningham said. After professing his faith in the stock market during the fall of 2008, Buffett later regretted that he’d spoken out prematurely, as the market continued to suffer losses for months after that.

“Buffett learns from his mistakes and doesn’t want to repeat that one,” Cunningham said.

Nonetheless, Cunningham expects on Saturday to hear the kind of long-term bullishness on American prospects for which Buffett has been known.

“What is catastrophic today will be a memory tomorrow,” Cunningham said of Buffett’s view.

Come Saturday, analyst Shanahan is much less interested in what Buffett has to say about the broader economy than in what he’s done in recent months to deploy Berkshire’s considerable capital.

Indeed, a recurring theme of recent shareholders’ meetings has been how Berskhire will try to profit from its growing pile of cash, which stood at $128 billion at the end of last year.

Buffett has long lamented his recent inability to find another “elephant-sized” acquisition to add to the conglomerate he has built. He’s been unwilling to pay what he considers excessive prices. But price has certainly not been an object during this downturn.

Buffett notably took advantage of the Great Recession, profiting off cash loan deals he made to shore up wobbly companies, and acquiring BNSF Railway at what he considered an attractive price.

“Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful,” Buffett is known for saying.

But Munger, in a recent Wall Street Journal interview, noted that those same kinds of attractive cash deals don’t seem to be available in this downturn. Many companies appear to be turning to the federal government to shore up their cash positions.

“The phone is not ringing off the hook,” Munger told the paper.

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Cunningham said he thinks that could still change.

“I suspect the tolerance for such government lifelines will naturally end,” he said. “When that ‘lender of last resort’ runs out, Berkshire will be a buyer of first choice.”

Shanahan is eager to see if Buffett has found some bargain-priced stocks or bought back Berkshire shares, a prospect that became a major theme at last year’s shareholders meeting.

Shanahan noted that Berkshire stock has recently traded publicly as low as 1.1 times its book value — a simple measure of assets minus liabilities. That compares with the five-year average of 1.4 times book.

It seems the price is right. As an analyst, Shanahan is rating Berkshire shares a “buy” — and he hopes Buffett has been, too.

“It’s definitely in the wheelhouse for buybacks,” he said.

Whatever business Buffett has done in recent months, longtime shareholder Lountzis said he trusts that Buffett has had good reasons for doing it.

More than anything, he just hopes Buffett and Munger take care of themselves so that everyone can get back together in Omaha next year.

He said he totally understands Munger’s decision not to travel this year during a pandemic.

“At 96, he shouldn’t be — and neither should Warren,” he said. “This is just a very, very scary time.”

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus