Multiple employees working in Blue Harvest Fisheries’ processing plant in New Bedford, Massachusetts, U.S.A. have tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in the city’s Board of Health sending a cease and desist letter to the company.

Blue Harvest has been ordered by the city to cease the plant’s operations until the company performs a thorough cleaning and disinfection process, according to South Coast Today. The closure will remain effect until 72 hours after the cleaning takes place, the newspaper reported.

In an interview with SeafoodSource, Blue Harvest President and CEO Keith Decker said the first employee tested positive on 14 April, having gone on medical leave on 3 April. A second employee tested positive 20 April in what Decker called an unrelated case. A third case is suspected but not confirmed, Decker said.

In response, Blue Harvest “immediately notified the city and Board of Health proactively,” Decker said.

“We have been in close contact throughout the week, and it’s standard protocol to notify the board of health if you have a positive diagnosis,” he said.

Blue Harvest had already arranged for a third-party contractor to sanitize the facility prior to the issuance of a cease and desist letter, and that cleaning took place Thursday, April 23. The plant is scheduled to reopen on Monday, April 27, Decker said.

“We were already been expecting this activity and had been working with the Health Department on an ongoing basis. We had already arranged for fogging company to come in, and they took care of that yesterday,” he said. “Our expectation run as normal on Monday – [the shutdown] won’t significantly affect our ability to continue business moving forward.”

As a food production facility, the plant has been deemed an essential business and is therefore allowed to continue operations even though most businesses across the country have been forced to close due to orders by state governors to limit the spread of covid-19.

Decker said the plant is typically open seven days a week processing both groundfish and scallops, though the scallop season now underway has started slowly, meaning the facility has been primarily processing groundfish, including haddock and ocean perch. He said the company has made arrangements so the temporary closure won’t significantly affect its operations.

“The plant is actively processing local haddock and ocean perch on a daily basis. The scallop season just getting underway – landings have been very light in the last three weeks due to a combination of weather events and people staggering their fishing trips, so most of the industry not that busy right now. There’s not a lot of inventory flowing through system,” he said.

Blue Harvest has put in place a 25-point protocol to ensure the health and safety of its employees, while also ensuring operations continue at the plant, which was renovated over the past three years.

“We have one of newest facilities in the greater New Bedford area,” Decker said. “Our goal first of all is health and safety of workers. Whatever we can do to accommodate that on the plant floor, we will go ahead and continue to do that. At no point do we want to put our employees in danger through this covid timeframe.”

Decker said all food processing companies across the United States are confronting the difficult situation of producing food essential to the country’s population while attempting to minimize the risk of spreading a highly contagious disease.

“It is not just a problem for the local seafood community in New Bedford, it’s quite a problem across the U.S. meat processing industry as well. How do you conduct your operation in close quarters while keeping your workers safe? What we’re doing is continuing to do everything you can as it becomes known or available, including social distancing, PPE, and whatever type of shielding you can do to keep your employees safe,” he said. “That being said, at the end of the day, the food infrastructure of the United States is critical and essential, and we have to try to do both at the same time.”

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Jessica Hathaway is the former editor in chief of National Fisherman.

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