STEELEVILLE, ILL. — COVID-19 has struck Gilster-Mary Lee Corp. again. Less than two weeks after the disease claimed the life of the company’s president and forced the closing of a major corporate facility, Gilster-Mary Lee is closing a second plant.
Tom Welge, vice president of technical affairs and general counsel at Gilster-Mary Lee, confirmed the Steeleville bakery mix and macaroni and cheese plant will be closing shortly. Plans to close the plant were first reported April 29 on randolphcountyheraldtribune.com and wsiltv.com. WSIL said COVID-19 cases in Randolph County, Ill., have more than tripled since April 23 and cited health officials attributing more than 70% of those cases from an outbreak at the Steeleville plant.
“Yesterday, we made the decision to try to further separate the workforce for a period of time and allow for some additional disinfection and cleaning within the plant,” Mr. Welge told WSIL on April 29.
He added the decision followed consultations with the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, local hospitals and the company’s food safety experts.
“Food safety and employee safety are ... our core guiding values,” he said. “We just have to kind of work together to get through these really challenging times.”
Responding to an inquiry from Milling & Baking News, Mr. Welge said the plant will be fully closed for seven days.
“Then we will evaluate the phased-in startup,” he said.
The 225,000-square-foot Steeleville plant is one of two operated by Gilster-Mary Lee in Steeleville. At the company’s second Steeleville plant, a 400,000-square-foot facility, the company produces pasta, add-meat dinners, macaroni and cheese products and ready-to-spread frosting.
Steeleville is located 13 miles northeast of Chester, Ill., where the company also operates two plants, one of which has been closed due to COVID-19. The Chester plant also is in Randolph County.
In mid-March, Don Welge, president of Gilster-Mary Lee, and several associates were sickened at the company’s headquarters in Chester, which is in the same building as the manufacturing plant and the company’s principal research and development laboratory. Mr. Welge died April 16 from complications of COVID-19 (see related story below).
His brother Mike and sons Tom and Robert were among those who were sickened by the coronavirus. The Chester facility was temporarily closed two days after Don Welge’s death.
On April 26, Tom Welge, who together with his uncle Mike has recovered from his illness, told Milling & Baking News he hoped the Chester plant would reopen within a few days, and on April 30 he said a gradual startup has commenced at Chester.
Other members of the Gilster team have recovered as well, though Mr. Welge said Robert, who is personnel director at Gilster-Mary Lee, was still ill.
“My brother Rob’s condition has improved over the past few days,” Mr. Welge said on April 26. “We are very hopeful with the recent progress he’s made, but the recovery is going to take some time. There is still so much they don’t know about the virus, treatments and recovery process.”
Offering an update four days later, Mr. Welge said, “Thankfully, my brother continues to improve. He will have a significant recovery ahead I’m sure, but our entire family appreciates all the support we’ve received from friends and associates in and out of the industry.”