New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo gives recorded daily briefings on the COVID-19 pandemic, and on May 6, he discusses a new hotspot in central New York that includes a greenhouse farm. ( Photo courtesy of New York Governor's Office )

At least 125 employees of Green Empire Farms, Oneida, N.Y., have been confirmed with the new coronavirus, COVID-19, prompting Gov. Andrew Cuomo and health officials to reinforce the need for social distancing and other measures.

The Madison County greenhouse grows 64 acres tomatoes and strawberries and is owned by Mastronardi Produce Ltd., Kingsville, Ontario, said a Green Empire Farms spokesperson, who did not want to be named.

According to the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no evidence the coronavirus is transmitted through food.

On April 30, the Madison County Health Department learned on a hospital conference call that a couple greenhouse workers, who have lived in close quarters in hotels for months, had coronavirus-type symptoms, said Samantha Field, health department spokesperson.

The department, along with state officials, set up a testing site May 2, and results came out a few days later. More employees were tested May 5. The greenhouse has more than 300 employees. Oneida County officials also conducted tests because some of the workers live in that county.

Each worker tested is quarantined while the health department completes a contact investigation, and any worker who tests positive is isolated, Field said. No deaths have been reported among the company’s employees.

“A lot of the people we tested hadn’t had any symptoms,” Field said. “It drives home the point, you don’t know who has it. That’s why you need to stay home as much as you can, and wear face covering.”

The farm has worked closely with the health department, following all CDC recommendations and guidelines since March, when Cuomo deemed food production an essential business exempt from his stay-at-home orders.

Green Empire Farms has conducted daily temperature checks and health screenings, enforced mandatory face coverings on site and provided face shields and resources to clean those shields, the farm spokesperson and Field said. Cleaning and sanitation increased and several social distancing measures began then as well.

The greenhouse is so “massive” that people can work in a row of vegetables without seeing another person more than a mile away, Field said. 

“Socially distancing isn’t too hard there,” Field said. “We believe a lot of them got sick in closer quarters where they are living. The employer can only control what you do in the workplace, not at home. We’re all going stir crazy; we understand.”

Statewide, there were about 600 new confirmed cases a day, down from about 1,000 a day the previous week, Cuomo said in his May 6 COVID-19 press conference, which he conducts daily.

“What is happening in these hotspot clusters that you see popping up?” Cuomo said, referring to meat and poultry processing plants nationwide, as well as the latest hotspot in Madison and Oneida counties.

“It’s not really about meat or vegetables…It is about worker density and large gatherings,” Cuomo said. “That’s the caution flag here. That’s the message. It’s not about poultry. It’s not about meat. It’s not about vegetables.”

Some of the greenhouse workers are recovering already, Field said. 

“Our death count in the county is very low, and we’d like to keep it that way,” she said. There have been six deaths attributed to the coronavirus in the county.

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