Marfa’s local tomato operation has new coronavirus precautions, while city EMS raises concerns

MARFA — On early weekday mornings, workers at the Village Farms International greenhouse in Marfa wake up in Ojinaga, Mexico. They board a shuttle van run by a fellow employee, cross the partially-closed border as essential workers and arrive at the Marfa facility to plant, harvest, package and ship tomatoes.

The international company has implemented certain restrictions in response to the pandemic coronavirus outbreak, and preexisting, thorough sanitization rules were already in place to protect the crop and maintain food safety. “We’ve gone to the highest alert of protocol well over five weeks ago,” Chief Executive Officer Mike DeGiglio said in an interview this week. “For us, we’ve always had the highest record of food safety, so we’ve always operated on that level. We’re just picking up the protocols a notch higher.”

That notch up includes distancing workers when possible, providing gloves, shoe covers and hooded jumpsuits at all times and requiring constant handwashing, according to the CEO.

“We haven’t had any instances where any people have had the virus, knock on wood and thank God,” DeGiglio said.

After responding to a routine call to Marfa’s Village Farms facility earlier this month, local EMS director Bert Lagarde told city council on April 8 he was concerned about workers coming from Ojinaga during the coronavirus pandemic.

“If they have a fever, they have no one to take them back to OJ,” Lagarde said. “If we go up there and if we assess them and the tomato farm doesn’t allow them access to the building, they’re sitting outside and have no way to get back to Ojinaga.” Lagarde said that because they’re traveling by van, the worker cannot drive themselves home in the middle of the day.

EMS has not seen anyone from the greenhouse exhibit symptoms consistent with coronavirus, so the concerns are precautionary. Lagarde was concerned that workers traveling from an area with a confirmed COVID-19 case did not have the same 14-day quarantine required, because of their essential worker status.

City Attorney Teresa Todd told the council she would speak with the company’s legal counsel to determine what efforts would be put in place to mitigate the risk of coronavirus spread.

Derin Gemmel, director of human resources, occupational safety and security for Village Farms International, said he wanted to assuage the city’s concerns when he spoke to The Big Bend Sentinel earlier this week, discussing many of the precautions the company has put in place before and during coronavirus.

Gemmel said that the EMS call earlier this month was from a worker with an upset stomach, and he acknowledged that employees coming from Presidio or Ojinaga are not likely to be able to get picked up by family for a ride home during the work day.

“Typically what they do is sit the day out in the breakroom,” Gemmel said, but “Obviously, that has changed with COVID, and then have been transported back. We also have outdoor eating areas that are covered and they can hang outside and wait, or wait in the break room if it’s windy, rainy or, in winter, a cold day.”

After waiting out the work day, the worker would take the van back home to Presidio or Ojinaga, riding for over an hour with other workers. Gemmel said, “Overall, we don’t own those vans, we don’t operate those vans. Those are individually owned by employees and those employees transport others in their vehicle.”

Gemmel said the company is asking employees presenting COVID-19 symptoms to stay home. Village Farms implemented a paid sick leave policy for workers with coronavirus symptoms before the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which now mandates paid sick leave in those circumstances.

“We had offered to do that for employees, and that urged them to stay home and alleviated the mentality of ‘I have to work, I have to make money,’” Gemmel said. The company is reviewing and investigating doctor’s notes, which Gemmel said can be written off of stolen doctor’s notepads.

The company has paid a couple dozen employees that have COVID-like symptoms, but Gemmel confirmed that five employees were tested and all five came back negative. They have no employees with pending coronavirus tests. The employees quarantine at home until the doctors give them the all-clear.

Gemmel said he understands the concerns from the public and city, noting that Village Farms is the area’s largest employer, and given their stringent rules, many have not had the chance to visit the facility. But Gemmel stressed that because of food safety requirements, the facilities were ahead of the game in responding to coronavirus.

Today, employees must sanitize their hands before opening the facility doors, a new requirement. They are already suited up in protective gear, and upon entry, they thoroughly wash their hands; these rules were already in place to keep the facility sanitary and to prevent cross-contamination between facilities. Rules that prevent the spread of plant disease are good precautions against viral spread.

Inside the facility, workers are six feet apart about 95 percent of the time, Gemmel estimated. He measured around the facility earlier this month to get an idea of how close workers have to be. Workers come within four feet of each other in the packhouse, which is unavoidable, he said.

Though the CDC recommends face coverings, the company currently cannot issue masks to all workers, because they would deplete their store. Masks are used when workers tear out crops. They have recommended masks to employees, and Gemmel estimates 60 percent of workers are now wearing them, and he only expects that number to climb.

If an employee were to begin presenting symptoms of COVID-19 at work, Gemmel said supervisors are monitoring for any hint of symptoms and are administering temperature checks if necessary.

“We have to isolate them from the workforce,” Gemmel said of any employees with COVID-like symptoms. That includes outdoor isolation stations, like a picnic table under an awning with a port-a-john that is not used by other workers. There is an indoor isolation station if weather requires, Gemmel said.

As far as protocol goes, Gemmel said, “If it is COVID-related, we issue gloves, masks and jumpsuits if they have to get back in the van for transportation.”