Football and the factory line: Living at risk in a heartland hot zone

“While the model of social distancing may work for many cities, it doesn’t really work in ours.” In Grand Island, Nebraska, a way of life is under threat.

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Cattle are unloaded from a semi-trailer truck into holding pens at the JBS Beef Plant in Grand Island, Nebraska. The plant did not close despite an outbreak of COVID-19. JBS employs 3,600 people and produces nearly 1 billion pounds of beef per year.

On April 3, Gov. Pete Ricketts issued a warning to the people of Nebraska: “If you want to see football this fall, you’d better be staying home right now.”

The novel coronavirus was ravaging the East Coast, and it was only a matter of time before it impacted nearly every little dot on the map. In Grand Island, a central-Nebraska city of 51,000, it had already arrived. (See where COVID-19 cases are growing and declining in the U.S.)

Danny Lemos, a 39-year-old manager of a tire store, was certain that it was allergies, because every year, when Nebraska’s barren winter expanse gives way to budding trees, Lemos coughs.

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Danny Lemos, 39, looks out the window of his home in Grand Island, Nebraska. He, his mother, and his father, who works at the JBS Beef plant in Grand Island, all contracted and survived COVID-19.

But it wasn’t allergies. Within weeks, he was life-flighted to a hospital in Omaha. His father, Danny Sr., who had been sick too, was on a ventilator and his mom, Candi, was coughing and quarantined at home. All of them had coronavirus.

“I have never felt so helpless in my life,” Candi says. “I held my breath every time the phone rang. I had days when I thought I was going to lose them both.”

Candi isn’t sure how her husband, a 62-year-old with a chronic lung condition, survived COVID-19, but she’s “99.9 percent” certain how he contracted it. He works on the chuck line at JBS, a sprawling meatpacking plant on the east end of town. By the third week of April, there were 560 known COVID-19 cases reported by Grand Island’s Central District Health Department. JBS accounted for nearly 40 percent of them.

Meat packing workers

sickened by coronavirus

COVID-19 has struck meat and poultry packing facilities nationwide.

1,000

Statewide

confirmed cases

linked to facilities

Cases

confirmed

but total

unknown

100

1

Wa

ME

MN

MI

Id

SD

WI

OH

PA

IA

DE

NE

IN

IL

Ca

Co

VA

KS

KY

MD

MO

NC

TN

NM

Ok

AZ

SC

MS

AL

GA

TX

LA

Counties with

affected facilities

Positive tests

Worker deaths

Dakota City

NEBRASKA

Madison

Fremont

Grand

Island

Waverly

Lexington

Lincoln

Crete

Hastings

MATTHEW W. CHWASTYK, NGM STAFF

SOURCES: CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL;

MIDWEST CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE

REPORTING; FOOD AND ENVIRONMENT

REPORTING NETWORK; LOCAL NEWS REPORTS

Meat packing workers sickened

by coronavirus

COVID-19 has struck meat and poultry packing facilities nationwide.

Counties with

affected facilities

Counties with

affected facilities

Wash.

Positive tests

Positive tests

Worker deaths

Worker deaths

Me.

Idaho

Mich.

S. Dak.

Minn.

ENLARGED

BELOW

Wis.

Iowa

Pa.

Nebr.

Del.

Ohio

Calif.

Ind.

Va.

Md.

Ill.

Colo.

Ky.

Kans.

Mo.

Tenn.

Ariz.

N.C.

N. Mex.

S.C.

Okla.

Ga.

Ala.

Tex.

Miss.

La.

1,000

1,000

Statewide

confirmed cases

linked to facilities

Statewide

confirmed cases

linked to facilities

100

100

1

1

Cases confirmed but

total unknown

Cases confirmed but

total unknown

Dakota City

Dakota

NEBRASKA

Madison

Madison

Fremont

Dodge

Grand

Island

Dawson

Waverly

Hall

Lexington

MATTHEW W. CHWASTYK, NGM STAFF

SOURCES: CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL;

MIDWEST CENTER FOR INVESTIGATIVE

REPORTING; FOOD AND ENVIRONMENT

REPORTING NETWORK; LOCAL NEWS REPORTS

Lincoln

Crete

Hastings

Lancaster

Saline

Adams

Like many other Midwestern communities now overrun by the virus, Grand Island’s biggest industry is meatpacking. JBS employs 3,600 people and produces nearly 1 billion pounds of beef per year.

Even before President Donald Trump signed an executive order in late April to keep meatpacking plants open, Gov. Ricketts was steadfast that Nebraska was not shutting down meat plants. One of five governors who didn’t issue stay-at-home orders for his state, Ricketts said he feared “civil unrest” if Americans didn’t have their meat.

Meat and football are in many ways the defining features of life in Nebraska. There are 6.1 million cattle in a state of 1.86 million people. And on football Saturdays in the fall, the University of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium becomes the third-largest city in the state.

“I worry about the psyche of the town if we don’t have Friday night football,” says Jack Sheard, a Grand Island city council candidate.

Working to keep working

Life in Grand Island, a town with two Walmarts, three interstate exits, and one regional airport, probably won’t be normal for a long time. It became a COVID-19 hotspot that at one point eclipsed New York’s cases per-capita. As of May 20, the Central District Health Department confirmed 1,511 COVID-19 cases; the district accounted for 47 of the state’s 132 deaths.

These numbers have slowed down in the past week, though Gov. Ricketts has yet to loosen his directed health measures in the area. The district no longer releases JBS numbers; Ricketts has said that the state will not specify the number of cases in each plant. Across Nebraska, meatpacking employees make up nearly one quarter of the state’s confirmed cases, with 2,700 positive cases among meatpackers and eight deaths.

Grand Island, with factories that make grain bins, combines, frozen food, and ammunition, prides itself on being one of the quiet cogs that keeps America running. Many of the people here work with their hands and on their feet. Most of them are considered essential and almost none of their jobs can be done from home with a laptop and Zoom calls.

“While the model of social distancing may work for many cities,” says Grand Island mayor Roger Steele, “it doesn’t really work in a city like ours. People are expected to come into their jobs.”

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In Nebraska, cattle outnumber people three to one. Here, a large-scale cattle lot outside the city of Grand Island.

Grand Island prides itself on being one of the most diverse cities in the Midwest. Manufacturing jobs brought in workers from Mexico, Sudan, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba, Vietnam, and Somalia, many of whom came to America to forge a better life. Sixty-four percent of the student body in the Grand Island public school district is minority.

But the pandemic has revealed a tale of two Grand Islands: A hard-hit eastern side overrun by COVID-19; and the north and west end that has been relatively unscathed, with people growing frustrated that everything is shut down. (Data shows that African Americans are disproportionately affected by COVID-19.)

“It kind of isolates blame on the part of town and the kind of people that are disproportionately affected just because of the kind of work they do,” says Audrey Lutz, executive director of the Multicultural Coalition in Grand Island.

“I think there’s a portion of Grand Island that is not taking ownership … this is an issue that affects everybody.”

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Nebraska National Guard members conduct COVID-19 tests at a drive-up testing center on the State Fair Grounds in Grand Island.

Alma Rawlings and her husband Terry own a downtown check-cashing company that primarily serves meatpacking employees from Grand Island and nearby Gibbon, Nebraska. Rawlings’ family immigrated to the United States from Guatemala, and she knows her business, TA Latino Check Cashing, serves a great need in the community. Many of her clients wire money home to support their families.

Terry is 65 years old, which puts him in the COVID-19 vulnerable category, and their work involves close contact and touching currency in a time when she can’t find hand sanitizer in town.

The Rawlings are taking as many precautions as they can to keep safe. They decided to close the shop on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to give themselves two fewer days to be exposed and they covered most of the check-cashing window with vinyl.

Alma, 47, made a solution of isopropyl alcohol and water and put it in spray bottles so her customers could sanitize their hands while they wait in line. She won’t let her husband around the customers anymore; he does paperwork in the back office.

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Spectators watch horse racing from their cars parked outside the fence at Fonner Park in Grand Island.

Her 25-year-old son, Herson Castaneda, tested positive for COVID-19 in April. He wasn’t hospitalized but had fevers, pounding headaches, and shortness of breath for a month.

Alma considers herself lucky. She can work during a time when other small businesses, like restaurants, are cratering. But at what cost? “I told my husband every day is like a circle. Like we’re never going to end it with coronavirus. We’re going to be exposed every day.”

A new playbook

Broc Douglass lives in Sterling Estates, a neighborhood on the northwest side of town that, as his dad jokes, isn’t as fancy as it sounds. His backyard faces a cornfield.

Nearly every little boy in rural Nebraska has had a dream of playing football for the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers, of running untouched on a Black 41 Flash Reverse, a signature team play, while the stadium erupts so loudly it might explode. Broc is no different.

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A treehouse across the railroad tracks from a meatpacking facility in Gibbon, Nebraska. Meatpacking employees make up a quarter of the state’s confirmed coronavirus cases.

His dad Terry used to be the sports editor at the Grand Island Independent newspaper, and when Broc was a baby, he traveled with his parents to Pasadena while his dad covered the 2002 Rose Bowl. He can’t remember a time he didn’t want to be a Cornhusker.

He weighed just 160 pounds, undersized for a wide receiver, but Douglass caught 12 touchdown passes his senior season. One night last December the Nebraska coaching staff called to invite him to be a walk-on. He had a shot.

Broc was finishing his senior year at Grand Island Senior High, looking ahead to running on the turf at Memorial Stadium in the fall, and then everything stopped. No prom, no graduation. No certainty he’d get a shot this fall. (See how stadiums around the world have transformed to help pandemic relief efforts.)

“I just remember being surprised and shocked and thinking, ‘They’re really going to shut down?’” he says.

On what would have been Senior Day for his baseball team, his dad posted on Facebook an old picture of Broc in uniform. “Add it to the pile of memories lost,” he wrote.

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Grand Island is one of the most diverse cities in the Midwest, and Fourth Street, near the JBS plant, has become home to a large immigrant community that primarily works in meatpacking.

Broc recently received a box with his purple cap, gown, and gold tassel. In it was a book with messages written from former teachers and coaches. His second-grade teacher reminded him of the mealworms they raised and the memories they had. “I KNOW you will be stronger because of this,” she wrote.

Graduation was supposed to take place on May 17. His mom, Donna, made everyone in the family dress up that Sunday to honor Broc. They ordered a nice takeout meal and watched the ceremony online. Broc wore his cap and gown.

Donna tries to keep things as normal as possible in their house of six. She does all the grocery shopping—her four boys consume nine gallons of milk per week—and she tries not to think about what could be coming next, she says.

“I’m still hopeful,” says Broc, who now works out in a makeshift gym in the garage.

“Winning Back GI”

Dr. Libby Crockett, an OB-GYN at the Grand Island Clinic, was seeing patients coming into her office in late March with upper respiratory symptoms consistent with COVID-19, but testing wasn’t readily available. Crockett knew things were about to explode in Grand Island. The first week of April she co-authored a letter to Gov. Ricketts asking him to issue stricter measures that would force more Nebraskans to stay at home. Forty-five physicians in Grand Island signed it.

“People pay more attention and behave differently when there is a shelter-in-place for the general population,” she says.

A group of local leaders wanted to raise community awareness about the gravity of the virus. Jack Sheard said they came up with a campaign called, “This is Real, GI.” They handed out posters.

Sheard was excited about the group’s momentum on a recent May afternoon when he received a text from a member of the team. The woman told Sheard that she was looking outside and could see eight to 10 kids across the street from her house hugging and practicing some kind of dance.

“Are we wasting our time?” she typed.

They came up with a new campaign. It’s called, “Win Back GI.”

On the sidelines

Danny Lemos Sr. worked the swing shift at JBS, 3 o’clock in the afternoon until 11:30 p.m. After a day working shoulder-to-shoulder with his coworkers on the production line he’d come home smelling of dried blood.

JBS reports that it has implemented COVID-19 safety measures, including increased availability of face masks and face shields, health screening and temperature checking, physical distancing and enhanced sanitation and disinfection efforts. A spokesperson says they “have seen a reduction in new COVID-19 cases and steady improvements in absenteeism at our facility.”

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Christopher Nguyen, a student at Grand Island Senior High, poses for photos in his cap and gown. The school cancelled its graduation and will stream a ceremony online instead. Nguyen’s mother, who worked at a nail salon, applied for a job at the JBS plant but decided not to take it after the coronavirus outbreak.

Lemos is expected to recover, but his wife wonders if he’ll go back. She has no idea what kind of long-term effects the virus will have on his lungs. (Hear from America's essential workers during the pandemic.)

“I’d like to be optimistic and say he’ll make a complete recovery and go back to doing everything he did before,” she says. “I’m not that confident.”

Danny Jr. was released from the University of Nebraska Medical Center on April 26. He said doctors told his ex-wife that at one point he had a 20 percent chance to live, but he started to show dramatic improvement when he was given Remdesivir, which was a trial drug at the time. He still tested positive upon his release, and had to go into quarantine for 14 days when he got home. He recently received his first hospital bill, and can’t imagine what the ordeal will cost over time. Lemos doesn’t have health insurance.

He says he was surprised at what he saw once he got back to Grand Island. The parking lots at the stores were packed, and people were going about their business on a Sunday afternoon.

“I think people are probably confused, I guess,” he says. “They just want to be normal again. It’s been so long since it’s been normal that we don’t even know what normal is anymore.”

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com based in the Midwest.