The South Jersey fruit and vegetable farms that keep the Garden State nickname credible pose special challenges in the COVID-19 pandemic.
They depend on an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 seasonal laborers during their summer-to-fall harvest, most of them migratory farmworkers.
The workers come from places where they may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus — as far away as Puerto Rico, Haiti, Mexico and Central America. Dennis Doyle, the Burlington County farmer who chairs the N.J. Blueberry Advisory Council, said most of the pickers for that crop arrive after such work in Georgia and North Carolina.
Migrant workers traditionally spend a lot of time close to each other — in farm-provided housing, on buses riding to the farms, eating together.
The potential for development of a COVID hotspot in the region’s farming community is obvious. Fortunately, farms, farmworkers and the N.J. Department of Labor are taking comprehensive stops to prevent that.
The state and four federally qualified health centers are testing workers at the farms. On May 23, when Labor Commissioner Robert Asara-Angelo announced farm work guidelines, the testing of about 600 workers had found 16% positive for the coronavirus — just above the 14% of those tested statewide the same week. That’s a good start and regular testing will continue.
The state has arranged for the bed space needed to isolate workers who test positive, said Judith Persichilli, health commissioner. Employers are screening workers for symptoms and as needed isolating and connecting them with physicians. The costs of testing and treatment are being covered by federal and state funding.
The guidelines call for farmworkers to wear employer-provided masks or coverings, including while in transit; stay at least 6 feet apart while working; and sleep at least 6 feet apart (or as close as 3 feet if separated by partitions). Farms must stagger meal times and make other adjustments to avoid crowding, limit vehicles to 50% capacity, and increase cleaning and disinfecting.
Doyle said he expects the farmworkers to have learned these CDC-recommended practices during earlier work in more southern states. South Jersey farmers have been monitoring harvests in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina and haven’t seen any major incidents, he said.
These preparations and practices should significantly reduce the chance of an outbreak that overwhelms medical treatment capacity when the harvest season begins with blueberries in mid-June.
This public-private partnership looks like a good approach to supporting the health of farmworkers and the communities they temporarily call home, allowing a quick and substantial response if needed. Let’s hope it’s not.