GPK Products Inc. officials rejected a recommendation from a state health official to close their Fargo, N.D., facility in May after some of the 200 workers tested positive for COVID-19.
However, all safety protocols were — and are — being followed to manufacture PVC pipe fittings for essential customers with municipal waterworks projects, according to President and CEO Brad Keller.
Founded in 1972, GPK Products grew into the largest producer of PVC sewer fittings in North America for the waterworks industry.
"Our products are used for underground work — the municipal sewer fittings from the house to the street," Keller said in a phone interview. "We're waterworks and that's essential. Everybody needs their sewer."
Still, the company has come under fire for not closing down when, according to local media reports, at least 10 employees got sick with the respiratory disease and one died May 31.
The reports also say that five employees who tested positive continued working, but Keller said that didn't happen.
"No one kept working," he said. "We have an ex-employee who is disgruntled and trying to make a big deal out of this. We've been very aggressive through this whole process. Anyone who has a sniffle is out of here."
The recommendation for GPK Products to close reportedly was made by an epidemiologist with the North Dakota Department of Health.
"They asked if we'd consider closing for two weeks and my response was we would not do that because we were putting people on 14-day quarantines and they would come back, not feel good, get tested and then they'd test positive," Keller said.
Employees who test positive are required to quarantine until a Cass County public health official releases them to return to work, Keller added.
Keller also said he would not describe the number of cases as a big outbreak.
"Over a period of time we had one here, two there," Keller said. "We tried tracking, and it's almost impossible. But we do know some cases came from the employees' households. Their spouses work in medical facilities. We had situations like that."
Employees have been good about notifying the company when a household member is positive.
"We tell them to get tested but you're quarantined for 14 days under the rules. We follow all rules," Keller said.
Everyone at GPK Products seems to be healthy right now, he said.
"We haven't had any cases in over two and a half months," Keller said. "We're working hard and we've been doing everything we're supposed to do from the beginning."
The real story should be about applauding the people working through a pandemic for an essential businesses, according to Keller.
"It's our busiest time. You need to be there for the public and provide products," he said. "We've got 200 people here who are happy to do that. They are coming to work every day and working smartly."
North Dakota state health officials reported Aug. 12 that active virus cases dropped by 64, to 1,035, and hospitalizations rose by one, to a record 58 patients.