IMMOKALEE, Fla. — An outbreak of COVID-19 is getting worse in a town known for producing a lot of your fruits and vegetables.
JUNE 13, 2020 EDITOR'S NOTE: Since the publishing of this article, a lawyer representing Oakes Farm contacted FOX 4, saying that neither Esteban Salazar nor Paulino Salinas Cortez worked for Oakes Farm. We continue to investigate the disputed information.
In addition, West Coast Tomato, LLC provided a statement explaining the company's safety precautions. That statement reads, in part: “We provided masks for our workers and we cut the number of people on our buses in half. We take temperatures of all people getting on buses in order to prevent infected workers from infecting others.”
Hundreds of new cases have been reported this week, as testing in Immokalee expands, but farmworkers accuse businesses there of not taking enough precautions.
The owner of one of the largest businesses in town, Oakes Farms, has called the response to COVID-19 a "hoax" on social media, but we have learned that one of Alfie Oakes’ own employees recently died of the illness.
His name was Paulino Salinas Cortez. He worked at Oakes Farms in Immokalee, according to two interviews we conducted with employees there. One of them was Esteban Salazar.
“He worked in Oakes Farms right. There’s a lot of crews in there. He, sometimes he go with me, sometimes he goes with another crew," said Salazar.
Salazar said, Salinas Cortez became too sick to work, but instead of calling 9-1-1, Salinas Cortez called him.
“He called the ambulance, but somebody say it costs too much to give a ride to Naples," said Salazar.
Salazar drove Salinas Cortez all the way to NCH Hospital in Naples. From the Medical Examiner report, we can see he was then taken to Advent Health Hospital in Orlando, where he later died of acute respiratory distress syndrome due to COVID-19.
The story of Salinas Cortez was first made public in an article on the website Salon, published by Dr. Seth Holmes, who worked in Immokalee.
But ask the owner of Oakes Farms, Alfie Oakes, and he says, he doesn’t believe it.
“We don’t know of any single farm worker that has fallen ill from COVID. Not a single one," said Oakes.
Oakes said he threatened Holmes with a libel lawsuit if he couldn't prove the story of Salinas Cortez. Meanwhile, Oakes continued on social media to refer to the coverage of COVID-19 as a "hoax".
“The threat of the virus is not what a lot of people had supposed it might be back three months ago," said Oakes.
If you take a walk through Alfie Oakes' store, Seed to Table, most employees, including the staff serving the public directly, are not wearing masks. That’s against CDC guidelines, which recommend wearing cloth face coverings, especially places like grocery stores.
But an hours drive away in Immokalee, the threat of the virus is a lot more real for farm workers.
“I think that the companies, they really don’t care about the people. I’ve been a farm worker all my life," said a farm worker who wished to be anonymous to protect his job.
This worker told us he works for West Coast Tomato, LLC. He also has COVID-19. We asked if West Coast was providing workers with masks.
"No, no mask. They provide you gloves, but they provide you gloves because, when you don’t use gloves, you hurt the tomatoes," said the farm worker.
This worker told us, people don’t get paid if they get sick and have to take time off work, so most of them come back to work as soon as possible.
“Some people, they miss 4 or 5 days, and then when they feel better, they go back to work. And you know, after you feel better, you’ve still got the virus on you, you know what I mean?” said the farm worker.
But while this worker is scared to reveal his identity, one group is standing up to speak for people like him.
“These people are trapped in their livelihoods because we have created the economic conditions that traps them in it so we can only pay 50 cents for an extra slice of tomato at Burger King," said Kris Knudson, with the Southwest Florida Activist Protection League.
He’s organizing a protest on Saturday outside the Oakes Farms store in Naples.
“Clearly, even though the man makes his living off of these people’s labor, he does not care about their personal safety, because to them, they’re not equals," said Knudson.
Meanwhile, Oakes said he welcomes the protest on his doorstep.
“Looking forward to having them out here for a peaceful protest, and their civil liberties are exactly what I stand for," said Oakes.
We're already seeing the effects of what Oakes has said online about Coronavirus and the fight for racial equality.
The Lee County School system has cut ties with his company, and the protest planned for Saturday continues to grow.
Oakes also said he’s planning his own protest to counter what activists are saying.
But the alarming spread of the virus in Immokalee can’t only be attributed to the companies that employ workers.
We also took a look at the response to testing in that community from the Florida Department of Health.