Outbreak in the heart of the RV industry | Feature | Chicago Reader

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Outbreak in the heart of the RV industry

In Elkhart County, Indiana, Latinos disproportionately accounted for half of the positive cases early in the pandemic.

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Sewing stations at a RV manufacturing plant in Goshen, Indiana. Dividers were installed after sewers were infected with COVID-19. - LUCAS ROBINSON
  • Lucas Robinson
  • Sewing stations at a RV manufacturing plant in Goshen, Indiana. Dividers were installed after sewers were infected with COVID-19.

Even after a weeklong intubation in an ICU unit and months of recovery, Maria Cabrera still didn't know how she became infected with COVID-19.

But the 60-year-old in Elkhart, Indiana, suspected that she caught it from coworkers who had symptoms at a RV parts manufacturing plant. In early May, Cabrera started experiencing a fever, chills, and vomiting. Her condition worsened, and doctors placed her into a medically induced coma for a week.

"It's a very hard experience. I do not want anyone to go through this," Cabrera said through tears in a phone interview. "Never in my life have I gone to the hospital. Once I was there, my family could not even be with me." Though Cabrera has been home for nearly three months, her doctor said her lungs are still not strong enough for her to return to work. "I have May, June, July, most of August, without receiving any money. No check, nothing," Cabrera said.

Elkhart County, the center of the RV industry, is about a two-hour drive east of Chicago. One of the biggest Latino communities in lily-white Indiana, many Latinos in Elkhart have friends and family in Chicago or Chicago-bordering Lake County.

But here in Indiana's biggest COVID-19 hotspot, Latinos make up just 17 percent of the population, but accounted for up to half of positive cases in the early months of the pandemic, according to Goshen Health Hospital. When Indiana reopened in early May, thousands of Latino immigrants like Cabrera, many of them undocumented, returned to physically demanding work—building RV frames, wiring units, manufacturing parts, and sewing furniture—in packed factories where social distancing can be difficult. Distancing, mask wearing, and temperature checks were inadequately enforced throughout the industry, according to interviews with community leaders, workers, and activists.

"Hispanics are always on the front lines," said Liliana Quintero, executive director of the Northern Indiana Hispanic Health Coalition. "And we know the majority of the people building these RVs are Hispanic."

A view of State Road 33. The “RV Manufacturing Capital of the World,” Elkhart County is home to one of the biggest Latino populations in the state. - LUCAS ROBINSON
  • Lucas Robinson
  • A view of State Road 33. The “RV Manufacturing Capital of the World,” Elkhart County is home to one of the biggest Latino populations in the state.

With over 5,500 positive cases, Elkhart has the second highest per capita COVID-19 rate in Indiana, far higher than at-risk areas like Indianapolis or Lake County. Only nearby Cass County has a higher per capita rate after suffering an outbreak at a Tyson Foods meatpacking plant, which grabbed national headlines. ("Indiana county clamps down with big jump in virus cases," "Nearly 900 workers at a Tyson Foods pork plant test positive for coronavirus.")

Though Elkhart's daily case counts and positivity rates have dropped since a mid-June peak, its outbreak drew the attention of the federal government. The White House Coronavirus Task Force designated Elkhart one of Indiana's two coronavirus "Red Zones," and a CDC investigative team researched why the area's cases spiked this summer. Though the CDC met with RV CEOs, the health agency did not visit any RV factories.

"If they're not going to really make an emphasis on what's happened in factories, we're not going to eliminate this problem," said Richard Aguirre, a community impact coordinator at Goshen College.

In every regard, Elkhart County is a company town. Home of up to 80 percent of the RV industry, locals instinctively call it the "RV Manufacturing Capital of the World." Seventy thousand people work directly and indirectly for the sprawling facilities that blanket the countryside. White motor homes line the roads like crops in a field, and workers shuffle in and out of the factories from the early hours of the morning to midnight.

RV work attracts not just immigrants from around the world, but the area's large Amish population. The result is an idiosyncratic corner of Indiana: Latino supermarkets, Amish buggies, and plenty of pro-Trump flags hanging in front yards.

In March, the pandemic briefly shuttered most of the RV industry. But companies saw social distancing as a golden opportunity. RVs provided a safe and isolated alternative for traveling, particularly for wealthy and young first-time buyers.

After initial plant closures and furloughs, Indiana's reopening of the economy brought the industry back in early May. Elkhart's spike in COVID-19 aligns exactly with the reopening of RV plants.

At least dozens of people were infected at one plant owned by Lippert Components, a top manufacturer of RV furniture and parts, according to interviews with workers. Sewers stitching fabric at the Lippert plant contracted the virus after working in close contact wearing only masks. The company has since put up plexiglass dividers in front of sewing machines.

A worker organizes upholstery at a RV manufacturing plant. - LUCAS ROBINSON
  • Lucas Robinson
  • A worker organizes upholstery at a RV manufacturing plant.

Walking the floor of the plant even today, maskless Burmese immigrants sew RV furniture just feet apart from each other. In the vast warehouse of mattresses and upholstery, there is little regard for social distancing since so many workers have already been infected.

Lippert Components did not respond to a request for comment. Other leading RV manufacturers Thor Industries and Forest River Inc., A Berkshire Hathaway Company, also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

"The manufacturers have been working very hard to prioritize the health and safety of their workers," said Monika Geraci, a spokesperson for the RV Industry Association. "When you saw that Elkhart did have some [case] increases, it wasn't outbreaks at plants."

A COVID-19 testing site outside a Keystone RV plant. - LUCAS ROBINSON
  • Lucas Robinson
  • A COVID-19 testing site outside a Keystone RV plant.

Dr. Lydia Mertz, Elkhart County health officer, blamed the county's outbreak on general indifference to the virus and dismissed the role of the RV industry as an "oversimplification." Her office has not found any RV manufacturer to be the cause of a COVID-19 outbreak.

"We certainly had community spread," Mertz said. "You could get it at the grocery store or the pharmacy. There were pickup basketball games. People were really acting pre-COVID. Then they take it into the factories. It's not that the factories caused COVID."

Despite early optimism, hopes have not even panned out that the pandemic is a boon for the RV business. Though 2020 RV shipments exceed last year's numbers, shipments were declining before the virus and are now on track for their worst year in nearly a decade. The industry now faces a "depression-level decline," said Michael Hicks, an economics professor at Ball State University. "Right now we're on track to manufacture 325,000 [units] in 2020," Hicks said. "We produced 500,000 in 2017. It is a substantive decline."

Though high, cases in Elkhart have fallen since mid-June. And despite thousands of infections, official deaths from the virus have yet to pass 100. County officials approved a mask order nearly two months ago, but mask wearing remains uneven for many businesses and people—white, Latino, and Amish alike.

Many in the Latino community attribute the drop in cases to a partnership between Latino leaders, Goshen College, and the county health department. The Elkhart County Latino Pandemic Initiative launched an aggressive public information campaign aimed at Latinos. Volunteers put PSAs on social media and local radio, held mask giveaways, organized food drives, and sent interpreters to free testing sites.

A banner reads “Demonstrate love, Use a mask,” in Spanish near downtown. - LUCAS ROBINSON
  • Lucas Robinson
  • A banner reads “Demonstrate love, Use a mask,” in Spanish near downtown.

Local Spanish radio station Radio Horizonte aired a Facebook Live with three people who had contracted COVID-19, including Maria Cabrera, to give testimonies of the experience. The radio station also donated money to Cabrera to support her while she is out of work. "Thank God for these people," Cabrera said. "They told me, 'We didn't want to leave you to go out, but people are coming. . . . It's one less worry."

The county created a similar initiative aimed at the Amish community. Known for their craftsmanship, Amish workers play a big role in the building of RV frames. Yet officials worry the extent of the outbreak in Amish country remains a mystery since many Amish are reluctant to get tested, according to a report by the IndyStar.

The Latino initiative also tasked Radio Horizonte with delivering food to isolating families infected with the virus. Volunteers encountered one home in Elkhart with 19 family members infected inside, a grim reminder of how the virus can impact multigenerational homes. Volunteer Francisco Barrios said he cried after bringing pizza to another family.

"It is a strong pain," Barrios said. "But beyond the numbers, beyond the statistics, beyond the context—there is still something of a human feeling."

RV units sit on a lot in Elkhart County, Indiana. - LUCAS ROBINSON
  • Lucas Robinson
  • RV units sit on a lot in Elkhart County, Indiana.

Many in the Latino community feel the RV industry's reopening worsened the county's epidemic, though many remain economically tied to an industry pushing to capitalize on any and all demand for luxury, socially distant travel. For Elkhart, a 60-page CDC investigation of the county's outbreak is the biggest next step for the fight against the virus.

Some do see the drop in case counts and positivity rates as a reason for optimism, but with hours cut back at factories, lack of unemployment benefits for undocumented immigrants, and local schools starting anew, prospects remain grim for this company town.

"I see an uncertain future," said Manny Cortez, president of Radio Horizonte. "A future of further contamination, of the virus infecting the community even more."  v

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