A caravan of vehicles decorated with black ribbons and memorial pictures crawled through Yakima, Washington, last week to mark the death of David Cruz, a 60-year-old fruit warehouse employee who died after contracting coronavirus. The county, a hub of agricultural activity where workers jam into often crowded factories to package apples and other foods, has the highest per capita infection rate on the West Coast.
It’s a grim reality that’s playing out across the country as COVID-19 spreads beyond the meat plants that have captured the national spotlight. At least 60 food-processing facilities outside the meatpacking industry have seen outbreaks, with more than 1,000 workers diagnosed with the virus, according to a new study from Environmental Working Group.
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These are the first national numbers of their kind. The advocacy group compiled its figures using local media reports because there are no federal agencies reporting the data. The true total is almost certainly higher. Fruit and vegetable packers, bakers and dairy workers are risking infection as the virus spreads through processing plants where employees deemed essential have mostly remained on the job during the pandemic, sometimes labouring in close quarters.