Tesla CEO Elon Musk has restarted the company’s California assembly plant, in defiance of local government orders, and offered to be arrested as part of an extraordinary showdown. He even told law enforcement where to find him.
The plant reopening caps days of very public tussling with public officials, including a lawsuit that aims to override local lockdown orders. At one point, Musk said he plans to move Tesla’s headquarters out of California.
Tesla filed the lawsuit against Alameda County, home to the factory, on Saturday in federal court in the Northern District of California. It alleges the county is violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses, and asks the court to give the company the ability to operate despite local orders. Musk also tweeted that he doesn’t believe county health officials have the authority to keep his factory closed. Before the court could rule, Musk on Monday took matters into his own hands.
California on Friday began to ease shelter-in-place restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic, but the Bay Area has maintained many of its restrictions. In a statement, Alameda County Public Health Department spokesperson Neetu Balram said the department was aware Tesla had restarted production, but that it hoped the company would comply with public health orders “without further enforcement measures.” Balram said Tesla was due to submit a site-specific plan to reopen on Monday.
Fremont’s police department is in charge of enforcing shelter-in-place orders. Spokesperson Geneva Bosques said the department is aware of reports that Tesla had reopened the factory, but added, “We are not at the factory.” Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.
Musk has been skeptical of the risks of Covid-19 and critical of California officials’ response. In March he tweeted that “coronavirus panic is dumb” and predicted that US cases would “negligible” by the end of April. (They were not.) On an earnings call with investors last month, he called state and local shelter-in-place orders “fascist.”
Some local officials, including Fremont mayor Lily Mei, appeared sympathetic to Musk. “The city encourages the county to engage with our local businesses to come up with acceptable guidelines for re-opening our local economy,” Mei wrote in a statement over the weekend.
Alameda County has reported 2,101 cases of Covid-19 and 71 deaths. But factory workers travel to the Fremont facility from as far away as Stockton, 60 miles away to the northeast, on a network of shuttle buses. Tesla on Saturday published a plan to reopen the factory safely, including procedures for increased cleaning and shift changes to maintain social distancing. But assembly work often places employees in close proximity. The reopening plan also asked workers to bring or make their own personal protective equipment if the company has not provided it to them, and to perform a “complete self-health check” before returning to work. The document said workers may be required to undergo temperature or symptom screenings.
More than 10,000 people work at the Tesla factory, and the company employs more than 20,000 people statewide. The carmaker’s corporate headquarters are in Palo Alto, which also falls under Bay Area pandemic guidelines.
California governor Gavin Newsom seemed surprised Monday when reporters informed him during a press conference that the carmaker had reopened. “My understanding is when I walked up to the podium today that wasn’t the case,” he said. Newsom said he is a Tesla supporter, and said he hoped the carmaker could reach an agreement to reopen early next week.
Indeed, the very public battle over the reopening of the Tesla factory appears to be over just a few days of operation. On Saturday, Alameda County supervisor Scott Haggerty told The New York Times that officials were negotiating to reopen the assembly plant on May 18. “I know Elon knew that,” Haggerty told the Times. “But he wanted it this week.”
The “Big Three” US automakers, Ford, General Motors, and Fiat-Chrylser, have permission to reopen their Michigan facilities this week, but all three are waiting until next Monday to restart manufacturing.
Musk’s companies have repeatedly benefited from government help. In 2015 the Los Angeles Times estimated that Tesla, the energy company SolarCity (now a Tesla subsidiary), and SpaceX had received $4.9 billion in government support. That included a record-breaking $1.3 billion subsidy package from Nevada to build the company’s battery factory, and $950 million from New York state to help build a solar panel factory in Buffalo. Last month, the Buffalo News reported that Tesla intends to seek a one-year waiver of its commitment to create 1,460 jobs in the factory. If the waiver is not granted, the company may have to pay a $41 million penalty to the state.
Still, many officials are eager to lure Musk’s business to their towns and cities. Last month, Missouri officials publicized a $1 billion subsidy package to build a Cybertruck assembly plant in Joplin. Wichita, Kansas, sent up a trial balloon, too. And on Monday, Texas politicians responded to Musk’s promise to get the heck out of Fremont. “Southern Dallas would be a wonderful location for Tesla,” tweeted Dallas mayor Eric Johnson. “Let’s make it happen,” he wrote, tagging Texas governor Greg Abbott.
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