One of Canada’s largest beef plants is set to resume operations just as union officials warn the number of coronavirus infections is still rising.

Cargill Inc. will resume operations at its High River, Alberta plant on May 4 with one shift, the company said Wednesday. The facility accounts for about 40 per cent of Canada’s beef processing capacity. Its temporary shutdown has left thousands of cows waiting for slaughter on farms and prompted McDonald’s Corp.’s Canadian unit to start importing beef to meet its needs.

“We look forward to welcoming our employees back and are focused on our ongoing commitment to safety,” Jon Nash, head of Cargill Protein North America, said in a statement.

Union officials argue the High River plant should remain idle and JBS SA’s plant in Brooks, Alberta, should be forced to shut down as more workers are infected.

There are 826 employees and more than 100 other contractors directly related to the Cargill plant that have tested positive for coronavirus, nearly half of the facility’s 2,000 staff, said Michael Hughes, a spokesman for United Food and Commercial Workers Union 401. Within Alberta, about 1 out of 5 cases of COVID-19 is now linked to the Cargill plant.

One employee from the High River plant has died and as of Tuesday, eight others were in the hospital, including five in intensive care, Hughes said. Cases at the JBS Brooks facility have reached 200 and some employees are sleeping in their cars as they fear infecting their loved ones, Hughes said.

Combined, workers at those two meat plants represent about two per cent of Canada’s 50,363 coronavirus cases.

‘Moral Question’

“There’s this tension and this contradiction between being deemed essential and being considered expendable,” said Hughes. “It’s a moral question. If folks are essential, give them everything they need. Slow down the production lines so they don’t have to die so we have steaks.”

Cargill is asking employees at High River in the harvest department to come back if they are free of symptoms and have not had contact with anyone with Covid-19 for at least 14 days. The company said it has started temperature screening, increased sanitation, installed protective barriers on the production floor between employees and made the use of face masks mandatory.

The company plans to continue social distancing in the facility and has added additional barriers in bathrooms and reassigned lockers to allow for necessary spacing in the plant, according to the statement.

JBS will try to keep its facilities open but “we will not operate a facility if we do not believe it is safe or if absenteeism levels result in our inability to safely operate,” spokesman Cameron Bruett said in a statement. Workers have their temperature screened before entering the facility. The company is also increasing sanitation and providing face masks and promoting physical distancing by staggering starts, shifts and breaks, he said.

Unlike the Trump administration’s decision to compel U.S. slaughterhouses to remain open, the Canadian government said Wednesday it won’t force meat-processing plants to stay open if the health of workers is at risk.