The Tiwai Point Aluminium Smelter, which employs about 1000 Southlanders, has been exempted from the four-week lockdown of New Zealand.
Smelter spokeswoman Jen Nolan declined to comment on Wednesday and chief executive Stew Hamilton could not be contacted.
However, it is understood New Zealand Aluminium Smelters is now working through the implications of what production at Tiwai would look like during the lockdown period, given the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak.
A major issue it will need to overcome is how to protect its employees, including adhering to Ministry of Health guidelines on how to prevent community spread.
Paul Stocks, deputy chief executive of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Enterprise, discussed Tiwai when addressing the nation on Wednesday to discuss the fight against coronavirus.
He was asked to comment on why the smelter was classified as an essential service.
Stuff understands Tiwai has not been classed as an essential service but has been exempted from the lockdown.
Stocks said the primary reason was that turning off the aluminium pots at the plant was a long and complicated process.
The restarting of the pots was an equally long and complicated process, he said.
Given this, the decision was made that the cost of turning off the pots exceeded the benefits of the shutdown.
“It was a very careful decision.”
Invercargill MP Sarah Dowie said the coronavirus pandemic was a big threat to the health of New Zealanders.
She also said there would be a massive economic impact on Southland and New Zealand if the Tiwai smelter had to shut down.
She indicated that Tiwai may struggle if its key suppliers and contractors were not deemed essential services themselves.
“We have to make sure we are strategic about the suppliers and key contractors that work with Tiwai, because if they aren’t operating it may force Tiwai to shut down, so we have to think strategically about the decisions we are making.
“But equally, we are acknowledging the threat of the pandemic which is spreading exponentially,” Dowie said.
“If we don’t shut Covid-19 down we are in dire trouble.”
In October, it was announced a strategic review would be carried out at the smelter given its “serious”‘ financial situation.
One of the options being considered was to close the site, with owner Rio Tinto expected expected to make its decision by the end of March, less than a week away.
It is unclear if that decision will be put on hold given the country will go into lockdown for at least a month at 11.59pm on Wednesday.