Repacking operations at the Divine Flavor produce warehouse in Nogales came to a halt last week after an employee reported experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19.
Administrators shut down the repacking portion of the warehouse immediately after learning of the employee’s symptoms on May 4, according to company spokesman Michael Dupuis. All repacking staff members were sent home and advised to self-quarantine, while the employee with flu-like symptoms was tested in Tucson that same day.
By the next day, the person’s test results had come back positive.
“Following that, we sent all of those employees to be tested up in Tucson for rapid testing, just to confirm if anyone else had been infected,” DuPuis told the NI on Tuesday.
A total of four employees in the company’s repacking area ended up testing positive.
Approximately 50 people work at the Divine Flavor facility on North Target Range Road, with about 30 of those in the repacking area. DuPuis described repacking as a distinct division that operates at the site under the Divine Flavor name.
He added that other areas at the facility have continued as normal, since their operations don’t overlap with repacking.
Even so, DuPuis noted that several employees in other divisions who may have had contact with the repacking department were also referred for testing in Tucson.
Divine Flavor paid for all costs of the employees’ COVID-19 testing, he said.
As for the produce that was already in the company’s possession at the time of the positive test, DuPuis said, it was distributed as usual.
“The produce is not really affected. From the very beginning, it’s been known that the coronavirus doesn’t present any risks with food,” he said.
Newly arriving produce, he added, will be repackaged at other warehouses in the area that have agreed to collaborate with Divine Flavor.
“As a precaution to those employees and the rest of Divine Flavor, we’ve decided that we’re going to allocate our repacking to other facilities in Nogales,” DuPuis said, adding that the company’s onsite repacking operations will remain on hold until 14 days have passed since the employees tested positive.
Asked if the repacking employees were being paid while in self-isolation, DuPuis said: “Per the benefits of the CARES Act, there are some ways that employees will be able to receive compensation and pay.”
The CARES Act is a relief bill passed by Congress in March that includes a variety of provisions and programs meant to help businesses and workers impacted by the coronavirus.
As of Thursday morning, there were 65 confirmed COVID-19 infections among residents of Santa Cruz County, with 37 of those people having already recovered.
Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, said that Divine Flavor’s repacking facility is the only produce warehouse in Santa Cruz County that has been confirmed to have COVID-19 cases.
He added that since the beginning of the outbreak, the local produce industry has been trying its best to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus. And while there was no indication that the Divine Flavor employees were infected by an agricultural inspector, Jungmeyer reiterated the local produce sector’s ongoing complaint that the federal government has been unwilling to adjust its inspection operations in response to the crisis.
New, stricter rules for the inspection of tomatoes from Mexico – a change opposed by the FPAA since long before the coronavirus crisis – went into effect on April 4.
“Generally, what we want to try to do is minimize the movement of people between warehouses,” Jungmeyer said, referring to federal inspectors that travel from warehouse to warehouse. “We’ve asked the federal government to modify how they do certain inspections. They’ve been unwilling to do that.”
Still, he said, local produce distributors have implemented strict guidelines at their warehouses to ensure safety.
At the Divine Flavor facility, DuPuis said, administrators encourage social distancing, check staff members’ temperatures as they enter the building, and have provided them with face masks and appropriate recommendations for staying safe.
“I’m sad, of course, that we have a COVID issue, but it appears that companies are doing the responsible things,” Jungmeyer said. “The food industry is a critical infrastructure and we’re expected to continue to work.”