Four CEOs of food companies and the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation were told to remove their face masks before a meeting in Iowa Friday with Vice President Mike Pence, a startling video posted by The Intercept reveals.
Pence — also without a mask — appeared a short time later at the headquarters of the Hy-Vee grocery chain in West Des Moines for a roundtable discussion with the men in front of an audience.
Just hours earlier Pence was informed that his press secretary, Katie Miller, had tested positive for COVID-19. She and six others in Pence’s entourage with suspected exposure to Miller were pulled from Pence’s flight to Iowa just before takeoff. Pence’s office denied news reports Sunday that he was self-isolating because of his exposure to Miller.
Video before the Hy-Vee roundtable shows an unidentified woman walking up to two groups of the men, all wearing face masks. She can be seen speaking to them and mimicking a gesture as if she’s removing a face mask. All of the men remove their masks. It isn’t clear who she was representing, but going face-mask free is a hallmark of the Trump administration.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing masks in groups. But Pence and President Donald Trump have not complied with those guidelines in an apparent effort to make it appear that things are heading back to normal despite ongoing cases of COVID-19.
The audience watching the Iowa roundtable practiced social distancing in the wide spacing of seating, but almost no one wore masks. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) all participated in the roundtable, but none wore a mask.
Pence traveled to Iowa to hail the state’s “success story” in getting back to business amid the COVID-19 crisis. But the Sioux City metro area had the most cases per capita of any county in the nation, according to a data analysis Sunday by The New York Times.
Iowa has also been struggling mightily with major outbreaks of the disease among workers in five meatpacking plants in the state.
Earlier this month, an angry sheriff blasted a “dysfunctional” Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Waterloo, where more than 1,000 workers, a third of the workforce, have contracted COVID-19. At least three workers have died.
The plant was shut down for two weeks but reopened Thursday in time for Pence’s visit after Trump signed an executive order declaring meat processing plants essential operations.
As of Sunday, there were close to 12,000 COVID-19 cases and 265 deaths in Iowa. The cases are still on the rise, according to the state health department.
The men in the Pence roundtable who were instructed to remove their masks were American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall, and CEOs Rodney McMullen of Kroger, Ron Cameron of Mountaire Farms, Ken Sullivan of Smithfield Foods and Noel White of Tyson.
Sullivan called workers at meatpacking plants “heroes” at the roundtable. A worker and a nonprofit workers’ rights group last month filed a federal lawsuit against a Missouri meat processing plant operated by Smithfield, accusing the company of maintaining dangerous conditions.
The meatpackers union said in a statement that Pence, Perdue, the senators and governor should have worked a shift at a processing plant to experience the dangerous conditions.
“They should work in the same conditions and under the same fear that our members and their fellow Iowans work under every day,” the United Food and Commercial Workers union said in a statement.
Tyson, Smithfield, Kroger, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and Pence did not respond to requests for comment from HuffPost about the removed face masks.
Here’s the entire roundtable after Pence arrived: