COVID-19: A second Olymel meat plant in Quebec dealing with outbreak

·4 min read

MONTREAL — Quebec food-processing company Olymel says it doesn't plan to close either of its two plants in the province dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks. 

A hog-slaughter facility in Princeville, Que., northeast of Montreal, reported 14 infections among workers on Thursday, and a plant in Quebec's Beauce region, southeast of Quebec City, recently reported 126 cases.

Company spokesman Richard Vigneault said regional public health authorities haven't recommended either plant be closed. "Of course we assess all our options when we have a crisis like this," Vigneault said Friday.

He said the company has begun testing 120 employees of the Princeville plant, targeting day shift workers in the cutting room. That facility employs 370 people and is located about 175 kilometres northeast of Montreal.

At the Valle-Jonction, Que., facility in the Beauce region, mass testing of employees has ended and the company hired a nurse to work on site and assess employees' symptoms.

But Martin Maurice, the head of the union representing workers at the Beauce plant, said some employees remain worried. "What we want is for the workers to work safely and we don't think that's the case right now," Maurice said of the plant, where the recent death of a 65-year-old colleague is suspected of being COVID-related. The local health authority said the man's family has requested an autopsy.

Vigneault said the company is offering employees advance pay so they don't hide their symptoms or come to work sick. 

Steve Houle, the head of the union representing workers at the Princeville plant, said he was satisfied with the company's safety measures. But he echoed Maurice's concern about employees who may be reluctant to stay home if they have symptoms because they fear not being paid. "For a lot of people, losing a few days of work makes the difference between being able to pay the bills," Houle said.

Vigneault said the advance pay is meant to address that concern. He said that Olymel is also adding a 65-minute buffer between shifts to ensure employees don't mix, and is reducing overtime and encouraging physical distancing. Olymel is also asking employees to avoid car pooling and to instead use shuttle buses provided by the company.

Many meat-processing plants across North America have been affected by COVID-19 outbreaks since the start of the pandemic. Houle said it's not always easy to maintain physical distancing in meat plants.

"It's very hard to distance in an environment like this, there's Plexiglas between us but we're all near each other," Houle said.

Public health officials announced Friday afternoon that Quebec's Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region and all of the Chaudiere-Appalaches region were being elevated to the highest COVID-19 alert level, with measures taking effect Monday. Previously only part of Chaudiere-Appalaches was at the high-alert level.

Twelve regions of the province are now either partially or entirely in the so-called red zone, which carries increased restrictions such as the closing of bars, theatres, restaurant dining rooms and gyms.

The government announced this week that red-zone restrictions would remain in place until Nov. 23. It said Friday that some restrictions could be relaxed before that date in regions where a decline in new cases is observed.

Also Friday, Quebec City police said a gym owner and two clients were each fined $1,000 for defying public health rules ordering them shut.

Police spokesman David Pelletier said Gym Olympe was first visited on Thursday and an offence report was filed with the Crown. Officers handed out fines on the spot when they returned Friday.

The Legault government adopted a decree this week providing for stiff fines for gyms and their customers after a number of fitness centres threatened to reopen in defiance of the public health rules.

The province reported 952 new COVID-19 infections Friday and 18 more deaths linked to the novel coronavirus. The number of hospitalizations increased by six compared to the previous day, for a total of 515, and 81 people were in intensive care, a rise of three.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 30, 2020.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press