One thousand votive candles flickered on the steps of the State Capitol last night, a tribute to Minnesota’s essential workers who have fallen ill with COVID-19.

“To workers who have contracted COVID, this is for you,” Minnesota Nurses Association President Mary Turner said, opening the candlelight vigil as the sun set in St. Paul.

Statistics show health care workers make up about 18% of Minnesota’s 5,000-plus COVID-19 cases. Shortages of personal protective equipment nationwide have only increased the risks faced by people working in hospitals, nursing homes and other health services.

“Our members are fearful,” said Lisa Root, executive vice president of SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, which represents more than 35,000 health care and long-term care workers across the state. “We as one Minnesota have a responsibility to make sure health care workers are not being put in harm’s way, as well as the residents and patients they care for.”

But the coronavirus has spread in other industries, too. More than 20 meatpacking plants nationwide have been forced to halt production, including Worthington’s JBS pork processing facility, where over 200 employees have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a report in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

Warehouse workers, retail clerks, transit operators, child care providers, corrections officers – the list of essential workers at high risk of being exposed to the pandemic is long.

Unions representing many essential workers in Minnesota – including United Food and Commercial Workers Local 663, which represents workers at the Worthington plant – took part in the vigil, which fell on International Workers Day, appropriately enough.

Local 663 Secretary-Treasurer Paul Crandall said at least 400 members of his union had contracted COVID-19. Chris Parsons of the Minnesota Professional Firefighters Association said lack of PPE creates a common fear among everyone who works with the public.

“The greatest fear among all of us is that we will bring (COVID-19) home to our families,” Parsons said.

Union leaders at the vigil said the best way members the public can help keep frontline workers safe is to follow state guidelines designed to contain the virus.

“Right now the best way we can prevent the increased spread of this illness is to stay at home,” Parsons said.

But Minnesota AFL-CIO President Bill McCarthy, head of the state’s largest labor federation, acknowledged those measures have created hardship for people working in industries like hospitality and leisure, who are making an “extraordinary sacrifice” during the pandemic response.

“As we pause this evening to recognize workers who have suffered and, in some cases, even died from COVID-19, we owe them action,” McCarthy said. “We owe it … to them not to simply focus on when we can reopen the economy, but rather how we can reopen it to ensure the health and safety of working people.”

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