The phone at the Cordova Locker rang so much over three weeks in April that Al Kimminau started joking that his wife, Jeniece, wore a path in the cement floor with her nervous pacing.
That's a fun story she shares when she has time. And she doesn't have much of that anymore.
Business at the Cordova Locker increased as the food supply chain weakened during the height of the novel coronavirus. Instead of booking four months out, their schedule's completely full until July 2021. That's with their custom butchering and packing. They also sell pounds of hamburger, brats, beef sticks, steaks at the store. Keeping those refrigerators stocked has also proven a challenge.
“Most people call for the custom work,” Jeniece Kimminau said. “Then we have our retail and that's been here for awhile, that's a challenge to keep the retail stocked.”
She estimated that they've sold “thousand of pounds of hamburger a week,” since business started increasing during the pandemic. Jeniece estimated that other local lockers, like Pickrell Locker, endured the same rush of business. Just like how people panicked and purchased toilet paper by the bulk, she said, they ran to buy as much meat as they could.
“With the big hog operations, their production went down so people had all these hogs to get rid of that filled spots in their lockers,” she said.
She was referring to the temporary halts at some major meatpacking plants due to coronavirus outbreaks. Statistically speaking, those outbreaks have made three Nebraska counties some of the country's highest-infected counties. Local lockers like in Cordova have provided a local alternative to the larger meatpacking plants.
An outbreak in Tyson's Dakota City plant contributed to that county having the most confirmed cases of coronavirus per capita in Nebraska (8.7%). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's June 17 numbers, the county had 1,743 cases with 32 deaths in a population of just 20,026. And that 8.7 % per capita is the third-most among counties in the country.
There was also the outbreak at a JBS plant in Grand Island, partly responsible for Hall County's April spike in confirmed cases.
Saline County wasn't far behind with 3.7% of its combined population of 23,595 testing positive for COVID-19. Driven by the outbreak at Smithfield Foods outside Crete, the county ranks No. 21 in the country in terms of per capita confirmations.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts stated in an early June daily press briefing that nearly 4,000 of Nebraska's almost 20,000 meat packing plant employees have tested positive for coronavirus.
Production plants elsewhere in the country also saw significant outbreaks. As a result of those precautions, the food supply chain bottlenecked and disrupted distribution for local producers. Farmers dependent on those plants needed a place to go.
In the ongoing saga of Smithfield Foods outside Crete, production ultimately continued without disruption. When asked for comment, Smithfield representatives outlined the company's 20-point plan on how to work through restrictions and worries about the novel coronavirus. Some of those points include supplying personal protective equipment, enhanced cleaning, restricting all nonessential visitors and allowing paid leave for all employees over 60 and/or those at “higher risk for serious complications,” as the company described. The Payroll Protection Program signed into federal law in March required businesses to give two weeks paid sick leave.
Smithfield's Crete facility employs more than 2,000 and the company “prides itself on providing a variety of fulfilling jobs with industry-leading wages,” it said in an email.
It's also responsible for stimulating the local economy.
“In addition to contributing to the local tax base, our employees' wages support the health of local businesses through purchases of goods and services, as well as non-profit organizations,” a Smithfield representative said via email. “Additionally, we support the growth of the larger agricultural community through our relationships with family farmers throughout the region who produce bountiful livestock supplies but rely on meat processing facilities to convert that abundance into food.”
Smithfield re-affirmed its sanitary practices when asked how to reassure customers of its safety. The U.S Food and Drug Administration sees no evidence that COVID-19 is a food-borne illness.
“With demand for protein on the rise and a growing population, our size and scale makes us well-positioned to feed the world in an effective, responsible way,” the company stated.
Is this change permanent? As customers continue to schedule more than a year away at Cordova Locker, will they return once concerns of the pandemic subside? Kimminau says that she hopes so – just about as much as she hopes people relax.
“I just hope everybody calms down and we can get back to somewhat of a normal life for everyone,” she said. “I think everyone's just tired of it. And we appreciate everybody patronizing us. We feel very blessed that we are an essential business, staying in business and maintaining our employees.
“We're glad we're here for our neighbors when they needed us.”