Sonia has milked weekdays morning shift for 14 years. Her husband, Robert, has worked for us for 17 years. They live in their paid-for house on a quiet street in Worthington with their three daughters and one son. Their oldest daughter is a bilingual pre-med student at the local community college. Their son is 16 and makes pizzas at our convenience store after school. Sonia is quiet, reliable, works her shift, and goes home and takes care of her family. In April, after Worthington was hit hard with the new coronavirus at the local packing plant, Sonia got sick.
    Sonia felt ill over the weekend when she was off work and fortunately called in sick Monday morning. By Tuesday, she was tested, and it came back positive for COVID-19. I told her to take two weeks paid off and see how it goes. She ended up taking three weeks off because she did get quite sick, and she conferred with a doctor daily over the phone. She has no idea where she picked up the virus, but it was all over Worthington. Neither her husband nor her children ever got sick, and their house is not large at all.
    A few days after Sonia got sick, another morning shift member, Jose, said he felt a little off. We immediately sent him home and told him to let us know. Two days later, he was back working and said he felt great, and that he had called the guy who was substituting for him and told the substitute he was not needed. We had a major communication breakdown that morning. We told Jose to go home and also get tested. At that time, there were numerous testing sites in Worthington because of the high rate of infection. Jose notified us he tested positive but felt good, so he wanted to come back to work right away so his paycheck would not be so small. I told him to take two weeks paid off and enjoy being a single dad to his two preteen daughters. His wife and his in-laws were killed in a horrific car/train wreck about seven years ago.
    With two morning shift workers out, we were starting to get worried about everyone else. Our crew had not been very good at wearing the face shields we had provided them early on, and they were not good at spacing out their break room times as we had suggested. We hired a few temporary workers to fill in some spots, but we were very nervous about a major outbreak and how we would handle that. From the outset, I said I would rather dump milk any day than not get the cows milked.
    Every morning, after the two positive cases, Bry and I would ask each other: Get any sick calls? Did everyone show up for work that was supposed to? Do we have enough people for all three shifts?
    As each day went by with no new news, it felt like a new win each day until the two weeks passed, and Sonia and Jose returned to work. We do not know how many other employees were asymptomatic because no one wanted to get tested. The reason no one wanted to get tested was they all heard horror stories from their friends who had been tested about the long swab stick pushed into your nose so hard that it caused painful nose bleeds for hours.
    Why more of us did not get sick is a major mystery to me. I am terrible about wearing latex gloves even in the fresh cow parlor. I am in and out of the main parlor every morning and interact with all the employees on a daily basis. I take their hand-written time sheets to the computer to do payroll and touch everything they touch. I am also a huge believer in sunshine and vitamin D to help prevent COVID-19.
    Some of us get outside more often than those who only work in the milking parlor. The only major differences between a dairy operation and, say, a packing plant would be people are spaced apart better at the dairy, and there is a lot of ventilation at the dairy because the cows give off a lot of heat. I did force myself to wear latex gloves for about two months, and now I kind of like having a box of them available in my work truck.
    It so happened that Sonia’s three weeks off coincided with Jose’s two weeks off. They both came back to work on the same Monday morning. When I walked into the parlor to greet them, we all had big smiles of relief on our faces. I motioned to them with my arms wide open like we should have a group hug, and they both walked toward me until we were exactly 6 feet apart, and then we just plain giggled.
    Vander Kooi operates a 1,800-cow, 4,500 acre farm with his son, Joe, and daughter-in-law, Rita, near Worthington, Minn. Send him feedback at Follow him on Instagram, @davevanderkooi.