This story has been updated since first being posted earlier this week.
The Gilster Mary-Lee Corp. baking mix plant in Steeleville will shut down for two full weeks on Saturday, as Gilster and the Randolph County Health Department try to stem the tide of coronavirus cases that continues to plague the company and the region.
On Monday, about half of the 400 employees in the Steeleville plant were furloughed, and after Tuesday all but 35 workers per line were also laid off, Gilster Vice President Tom Welge said Thursday. The Steeleville plant has three lines.
On Saturday, Gilster employees will come in and thoroughly clean the plant, putting material away and preparing the plant to be closed for two weeks, Welge said. The remaining workers will be sent home to quarantine and the professional cleaning crew -- trained in virus eradication -- will come in on Monday, he said.
The Randolph County Health Department announced Wednesday that the county's number of COVID cases was 154. Randolph County is currently ranked fifth among Illinois counties in infection rate, behind only Cook County, Jasper County, Lake County and Will County.
According to Randolph County Health Administrator Angela Oathout, fully 75% of all Randolph County's COVID-19 cases can be traced to Gilster Mary-Lee plants in Chester and Steeleville.
Gilster voluntarily shut the Chester baking mix plant for two weeks on April 18 after four cases were discovered, so the facility could undergo a thorough cleaning and disinfecting process.
The two weeks are up on May 2, but in the wake of the furloughs in Steeleville, Gilster is reopening the Chester plant a few days early to keep production going. Welge said they are reopening the plant slowly and carefully.
Randolph County State's Attorney Jeremy Walker is fine with that.
"That (Chester) facility has undergone onerous cleaning procedures," Walker said. "No one has any qualms with it, provided it is (reopened) with less staff."
Gilster Mary-Lee has about 3,000 employees in 14 facilities in Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas. Oathout said several factors contribute to the high COVID-19 count at Gilster: large numbers of people under one roof and the fact that many employees live together and ride to work together.
The Welge family that runs Gilster Mary-Lee has been especially hard hit by the virus. Don Welge, the 84-year-old president and CEO of Gilster died April 16, and at least three other members of the family, his sons Tom and Rob, and Don's brother Mike, contracted it as well.
Welge said a lot of company employees are working very hard.
"I am very appreciative of our employees, and of the agencies we've been working with," he said. "Certainly this is the most difficult time we've ever experienced. Working together is how we will get through this, and we will get through this."
Health workers from Chester Memorial Hospital, Red Bud Regional Hospital and Sparta Community Hospital are at all four Gilster plants in Randolph County at shift changes, screening every employee as they go into work and each employee when they come out.
Workers who fail that screening "in any way" are given the COVID-19 swab test on the spot and immediately sent home to quarantine, Oathout said. The tests are sent to the state lab in Carbondale, and the results come back in 24-48 hours.
Welge was asked if in retrospect, Gilster Mary-Lee did enough to prevent the spread of the virus early on.
"I think that's a difficult question to answer," he replied. "In retrospect there are always things you could do differently. I am confident that we made the best decisions we could based on the available information."
Welge said more direction from both the state and federal governments would have been helpful.
"A lot of us were left to feel our way along," he added. "I do think there could have been more guidance."
Walker and Oathout said they are in almost constant contact with Tom Welge, who has been very cooperative, they said.
"Nobody is getting special treatment because of who they are," Walker said. "We're trying to walk a fine line so that the biggest employer in the county doesn't go bankrupt but we also don't want to kill people."
If a county health department believes it is in the public interest to close a business or put all of its employees in quarantine, that county's state's attorney files a petition in court, which then determines whether the health department was right, or if it overreached.
Walker said no such action is pending in Randolph County court, nor has he or the health department brought any such action against Gilster during the COVID crisis.
He added that health departments from Jackson and Perry counties are also involved in discussions because some Gilster employees with COVID-19 live outside of Randolph County.
For privacy reasons, Randolph health officials are not identifying the patients by gender or age, but they are offering the ZIP codes of where those patients or former patients reside: 62233 (Chester); 62241 (Ellis Grove); 62242 (Evansville); 62272 (Percy); 62277 (Prairie du Rocher); 62278 (Red Bud); 62286 (Sparta); 62288 (Steeleville) and 62297 (Walsh).