Amid the U.S.’s patchwork of regional coronavirus regulations and guidelines, the question of authority frequently comes up. In the latest challenge to state authority, a New Mexico meat processing plant is defying state policy by refusing to shut down after several employees tested positive for COVID-19. Plant owners say that an executive order from President Donald Trump means they’re in the right — but who really has jurisdiction here?
New Mexico, New Rules
A state directive calls for all New Mexico businesses to suspend operations for 14 days if four or more employees test positive for the coronavirus within two weeks. Stampede Meat, however, says that this policy disproportionately harms businesses with large amounts of employees, which are likelier to have higher case numbers. They say that within a two-week period, over 500 employees worked in the plant in question.
11 employees reportedly tested positive over a recent two-week period, leading to the state’s Department of Health ordering the meat plant to shut down temporarily.
The company is refusing, claiming that their continued operations pose no public health risk and shutting down would mean leaving employees jobless and wasting large amounts of meat. Stampede Meat provides meat products to companies like Denny’s and Applebee’s.
When in Doubt, Sue
The grounds for their refusal to stop work comes from an April 28 executive order. In the order, Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to ensure that meat and poultry production plants remained operational, avoiding shortages as many sheltered in place across the country.
The Defense Production Act allows the president to direct private sector businesses to create specific goods. Trump has invoked the act twice before.
Stampede Meat is suing the state of New Mexico in an attempt to keep its plant open, arguing they have the right to continue operating thanks to the invocation of the Defense Production Act.
Though it is currently unclear what the outcome of the lawsuit will be, federal and executive power generally take precedence over statewide policies. A federal judge, however, has denied the plant’s motion to temporarily stop the shutdown.
COVID-19 cases have increased rapidly across the country in recent weeks, leading to renewed calls for action to stop the spread of the pandemic. Though President Trump has been hesitant to institute a national lockdown to contain the coronavirus, it is possible that President-Elect Joe Biden will adopt new policies when he takes office next year. Until that time, Trump’s meat industry executive order will likely stand, so get your fill of burgers now.