GAINESVILLE, Ga. - “No Mask! No Service! No Mascara! No Servicio!” say the stickers, posters and T-shirts going up across northeast Georgia, as community leaders try to rally people to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which recently flared up in the region and threatened to level the state’s huge poultry processing industry.
At La Flor de Jalisco #2 supermarket in the heart of Gainesville’s large Spanish-speaking community, hundreds of people drove up or walked up Friday to be tested for COVID-19. Shoppers wearing masks trickled in and out of the store.
It’s part of an effort aimed at tamping down the spread of disease in an area where an outbreak alarmed officials. Gainesville’s Hall County and neighboring Habersham County have the highest infection rates in north Georgia, which prompted Gov. Brian Kemp’s administration to begin focusing on the region in late April.
The Republican governor visited Gainesville Friday to highlight the effort, with local leaders saying they believed community outreach and infection-control efforts had begun to control the disease. It had threatened to overwhelm local nurses and take down the nation’s largest concentration of chicken processing plants.
As poultry industry officials proudly noted Friday, Georgia is the nation’s largest chicken producer, a $41 billion industry that employs more than 45,000 people statewide and turns out 15% of U.S. production.
Kemp’s visit came as Georgia neared 37,000 overall infections and more than 1,550 deaths. The state recently surpassed 300,000 tests, which Kemp hailed as a milestone in efforts to locate virus cases. The latest testing figure represents close to 3% of the state’s population.
But an Associated Press analysis found Georgia was among 41 states that are falling short of the COVID-19 testing levels that public health experts say are necessary to safely ease lockdowns and avoid another deadly wave of outbreaks.
The spread of the virus claimed two workers at the Fieldale Farms Corp. poultry complex in nearby Cornelia as well as a nurse at the Gainesville hospital, among 56 confirmed deaths in Hall and Habersham counties.
Norma Hernandez, an accountant who heads the Northeast Georgia Latino Chamber of Commerce, said that over the past two weeks, community leaders have worked to present a message from people that Spanish speakers will trust.
“We need to make it simple. And the main thing is, let’s get healthy. Let’s get back to work,” Hernandez said. “And how are we gonna do that? We’re gonna do it by taking care of each other, taking responsibility for yourself. Because if you are careful, then you will not get infected and then you will not bring it home.”
Besides testing, a company was sanitizing taxis for free outside the grocery store. Hernandez said she and others have handed out 3,000 masks to stores so they can force customers to don them before entering.
Hernandez said she’s been counseling businesses to stay closed, but many stores were open Friday. State Insurance Commissioner John King and others say they’ve been trying to warn Latinos not to have large gatherings. Fieldale Farms executives said they saw a spike in cases in the weeks after families got together on Easter.
“This community has embraced what we’ve asked them to do, not only in the plants, but in the communities — with social distancing, avoiding large gatherings, and helping us to flatten the curve and stop the spread,” Kemp said.
Concerns have been widespread nationwide about the spread of the virus in meatpacking plants. Poultry plants in Georgia have soldiered on, under orders from President Trump to stay open, even as workers’ groups have voiced concerns that workers could be sacrificed and conditions could lead to widespread outbreaks.
“I’m proud of how quickly the industry has responded, but even more so I’m proud of the workers, essential workers, that continue to come to work and provide food for America,” said Georgia Poultry Federation President Mike Giles.
Executives at an 800-worker Fieldale Farms plant in Gainesville that prepares chicken slaughtered elsewhere for fast-food restaurants said they have taken typical precautions. Those include having partitions between workers and in breakrooms, taking temperatures of everyone who comes on property and wiping down vending machines and other surfaces.
Vice President for Operations John Wright said of 17 cases at the plant, 11 workers have returned to work. The privately held company has seen 200 cases among 5,000 employees in facilities scattered over six Georgia counties, and says 75% have returned to work. Wright said that the company has paid employees with symptoms to stay home for 14 days or more.
“We’re glad to be on what we believe to be the waning end of this pandemic, and we’ll remain vigilant, until it’s eradicated or no more exists,” Wright said.