KITCHENER -- The Cargill meat packaging plant in Guelph has started the process to shut down temporarily due to COVID-19.

The closure will come into effect on Thursday.

Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health said, as of Thursday, 82 people at the facility have tested positive for COVID-19. In total, 129 people, both cases and close contacts, are self-isolating.

“All outbreaks are serious,” said Dr. Matthew Tenenbaum, Associate Medical Officer of Health. “However, when we see an outbreak of this size, we must use all of the tools available to us to contain the outbreak and ensure the community at large is protected.”

“As cases rise in our region, we will be at more risk for outbreaks. That’s why we must do all we can to keep cases low and respond quickly to any outbreaks.”

"We are taking this step out of an abundance of caution as our local workforce deals with the community-wide impacts of COVID-19," a statement from Cargill said in part. "As we work in partnership with the union, our employees will be paid the 36 hours per week as outlined in our collective agreement."

The company said all employees are encouraged to seek testing. Anyone needing to stay home because they were sick or exposed to the virus was paid for 80 hours of leave, officials said.

"This was a difficult decision for our team who are operating an essential service and are committed to delivering food for local families and access to markets for farmers and ranchers," Jon Nash, North American leader of Cargill Protein, said in the statement. "Our focus now is on continuing to keep our employees safe and getting our facility back to normal operations."

Nash said staff plan to process the "1.55 million meals-worth of protein" in the facility to avoid food waste.

"My expectation is that while production at this plant goes down, we will see substitution from other markets, so we won't see shortages and we are unlikely to see significant price increases for consumers," said Mike von Massow, a food economist at the University of Guelph.

Von Massiv said the shut down could be good news for a hungry market, but potentially bad news for farmers who will need to keep cows in the barn longer than expected.

"So I'm to have to continue to feed those cattle, so I am probably going to lose value because the processors like a certain size and grade of cattle," he said.

Officials said they're working closely with public health and have safety measures in place like temperature checks, enhanced cleaning, face coverings, screening, physical distancing and staggering breaks.

The decision on when the reopen will be day-to-day, officials said.