Village Farms adopts mask rules as facility sees spike in cases

A Village Farms worker tends new tomato plants at one of the two Marfa greenhouses on Wednesday. The agribusiness is anticipating growing hemp in the coming months. (Sarah M. Vasquez for The Big Bend Sentinel)

TRI-COUNTY — As coronavirus case counts build in the tri-county, the disease has also gained steam at one of the area’s largest employers.

Village Farms, the Florida-based tomato company with branches in Fort Davis and Marfa, was for months able to successfully protect workers from COVID-19 at its facilities, said Derin Gemmel, the vice president of human resources, administration and compliance for the company’s Texas operations. But the company had its first case in July and then “saw a spike” in cases after a recent testing site in Marfa, peaking at 12 active cases, he said.

At press time, that number was down to six active cases involving workers at Village Farm’s tri-county plants, according to Gemmel. In total, he estimates the plants have seen around 15 confirmed cases. There are no related deaths.

Village Farms is hardly the first tri-county business to grapple with the dangers of coronavirus. As Alpine’s case counts surged in June, Brewster County officials said a restaurant there became a “hotspot” for the virus. And earlier this month, a Stripes convenience store in Marfa was forced to find temporary replacement workers after an employee tested positive.

But Village Farms — with 416 employees spread across two facilities in Marfa and one in Fort Davis — is one of the biggest local employers to be affected. It’s also an essential business, not just as a technicality but in terms of its role in the U.S. food supply.

Gemmel says Village Farms is taking coronavirus seriously. “We’ve had precautions and policies since the end of February,” he said — months earlier, he pointed out, than the first coronavirus case in the tri-county.

According to Gemmel, Village Farms does daily temperature checks on employees. It also gives them a “daily toolbox talk,” which gives them the most updated information on symptoms and guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Workers regularly clean surfaces, from tools to chairs in the breakroom, and the company encourages employees to do the same for the private cars they use for carpools to work and back. It runs ozone machines at night, which “breaks down viruses both plant and human,” Gemmel said. It staggers break times and encourages workers to get tested.

“If they want to take some time off of work [to get tested], they’re allowed to do that,” he said. “We’ll be doing that moving forward as well.”

Today — Thursday — the company also started requiring masks in its facilities, a step up from the company’s policy of recommending mask-wearing. Asked why the company didn’t impose such rules sooner, Gemmel said Village Farms didn’t want to require masks unless it could also provide them to employees.

The company had been trying to find personal protective equipment for its Texas workers, but placing bulk orders was “like trying to find a unicorn,” Gemmel said. Still, the company ultimately decided that mask recommendations weren’t doing enough. “The participation in our workforce was low, to be completely blunt.” In a follow-up call on Wednesday, he said that — even though the mask rule wasn’t yet in effect — rates of mask wearing seemed to be way up.

The Big Bend Sentinel contacted employees about the situation at Village Farms, but none were willing to be interviewed, even anonymously.

But so far at least, local officials have been pleased with how Village Farms has handled the situation. When results for Village Farms workers started coming in, the company held a virtual meeting with the county.

“By the time the call ended, I was very, very impressed,” Dr. John Paul “J.P.” Schwartz, the local health authority for Presidio County, said in an interview. “There was no funny business.”

The biggest concerns from Schwartz and others were about the carpools: either to save on gas money or because they don’t have a personal car, workers often ride together in close quarters for an hour or more to get to work. But “from this point forward,” Schwartz said, the company had agreed to stress to workers that “they have to be very careful [about] stopping along the way.”

Schwartz wished he had heard about some of the employee cases sooner. For example, he said, he didn’t learn one worker had tested positive until she was already out of quarantine.

Still, he blamed those issues on the state’s “lackadaisical” reporting — not on Village Farms. “They’re complying with everything,” he added of the company. “They’re being very careful.”

But regardless of how careful Village Farms is, there are inherent risks to running an essential business during a pandemic — let alone one with hundreds of workers. And from farmworkers in California to meatpackers in North Texas, food industry workers have often found themselves on the front lines.

Add that to the living situations many Village Farms workers find themselves in; around 70% of the workforce lives in Ojinaga, Gemmel said — a Mexican city that at press time has seen more than 200 confirmed coronavirus cases. And many workers commute together, further increasing their risks of transmission.

That has concerned some officials — particularly in Presidio, where some Village Farms workers live and where the city’s overall aging and low-income population is particularly susceptible to bad effects from the disease.

“You could not pay me to get on public transit right now, or even to get on a private van with a lot of people in it — and these people have to do that every day just to get to work,” said Malynda Richardson, the EMS director for Presidio. “Is that a potential situation in which you could have spread? Sure it is.”

Gemmel said Village Farms is also worried about employee transit. That’s one reason why Village Farms has encouraged sanitation of work shuttles even though it stresses the company doesn’t run them. But with “zero public transit options,” he wasn’t sure how else people could commute.

“So many of our folks don’t have vehicles,” he said. “It’s an enigma, figuring out how our folks get to work.”

Still, Gemmel stressed that the evidence shows Village Farms is handling the situation well. “We went from March to July without a case,” Gemmel said. And when compared to the over 200 cases in the tri-county, he argued the cases at Village Farms are “a drop in the bucket.”

As infected employees went into quarantine, over the past week, Village Farms has so far found no new cases among workers. Test results from another testing date in Marfa this week have so far come back negative. “It’s great news,” Gemmel said. He and other executives at the company are currently working to ensure it stays that way.

But on that front, Village Farms faces the same challenges seen across the United States: testing is limited, and people can spread the disease without even knowing they’re infected.

“The scary thing is, we’re getting very mild to no symptoms for employees who test positive,” Gemmel said. “Symptoms are as minor as a small headache or a stuffy nose — something that folks can easily overlook.”