Elon Musk Reopens California Tesla Plant, Defying Local Health Officials (Again)

May 11, 2020
Originally published on May 12, 2020 10:15 am

Electric carmaker Tesla has resumed production at its Fremont, Calif., plant — in defiance of local health authorities.

CEO Elon Musk confirmed the news on Twitter on Monday, after photos of the plant's nearly full parking lot started making headlines. He said he was willing to be arrested if necessary. (Bay Area shelter-in-place orders, which multiple counties have imposed, are largely being enforced by warnings or citations.)

Alameda County says it is expecting Tesla to submit its safety plan for approval and that, until it's approved, the company cannot resume normal production. The county says it hopes Tesla, like other companies that previously violated the local order, will "comply without further enforcement measures."

Tesla tussled with Alameda County back in March, initially defying the county's decision to shut down nonessential businesses. In recent weeks the company's famously erratic CEO has been railing against the shutdown orders on Twitter and in a call with investors.

On Saturday, Musk went so far as to threaten to relocate the plant out of California because of the local shelter-in-place orders, which are designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Alameda County officials said they were "communicating directly and working closely with the Tesla team on the ground in Fremont" in a "collaborative, good faith effort to develop and implement a safety plan" to reopen while protecting workers' health.

Meanwhile, Tesla sued the county, claiming it had no legal right to shut down the plant.

In its lawsuit, Tesla said that an order from California's governor superseded the local health policies, and that under the governor's order Tesla should be allowed to open. On Twitter, Musk again said that Tesla's reopening had been "approved" by the state.

Asked about the plant's reopening on Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he was unaware that the plant had resumed operations. He said the dispute over the reopening would be resolved "at the county level."

Auto plants across the country are reopening this month. Some plants reopened in early May, while Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler are targeting a May 18 restart.

The timelines for different plants reopening have been shaped, in part, by differing state and local shelter-in-place orders.

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The auto industry is returning to work. Michigan's governor authorized General Motors, Ford and Chrysler factories to restart with social distancing measures in place. Tesla operates under different authorities in Fremont, Calif. And Tesla founder Elon Musk is not happy that those local authorities have yet to change their guidance. He defied those officials by saying he's going to reopen his factory anyway. Camila Domonoske covers the car industry for NPR, and she's on the line. Good morning.


INSKEEP: OK. So did the Tesla factory reopen?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. A lot of people showed up for work yesterday. The parking lot was full, and then CEO Elon Musk confirmed on Twitter that production had resumed, although the county had not approved it yet. He said, quote, "I will be on the line with everyone else. If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me." And I should note here, the county has not been going around arresting people for violating this shelter-in-place order. It's handing out warnings and citations, for the most part.

INSKEEP: Well, what are government officials saying about what Musk did?

DOMONOSKE: Well, Alameda County officials say that they have notified Tesla it cannot operate like normal yet. And they hope that that will do the trick with no further enforcement. They also really emphasized that there's a process for reopening. Businesses make a safety plan that the county approves. And it's not that they've denied Tesla's request to reopen. They're working on approving a plan that just needs to be submitted and then given the OK.

Then there's the governor. California Governor Gavin Newsom has said that manufacturing can resume in California. But it's up to individual counties to make their decisions about how and when that happens exactly. Yesterday, he was asked about this, and he praised Elon Musk. But he was also evidently surprised Tesla is back in operation.


GAVIN NEWSOM: My understanding is when I walked up to the podium today, that wasn't the case.

DOMONOSKE: He says he's respecting the rights of local health officials to make decisions for their communities. And he expects Tesla to be approved to reopen in as little as a week.

INSKEEP: I guess this dispute is maybe a little less than it seems if it's just about the exact day and the exact mode of the reopening. But hasn't there been tension between Elon Musk and health officials in California for some time?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. When the pandemic began, Tesla initially stayed open in defiance of these same local health officials. And in the weeks since, he's started calling the shelter-in-place order an assault on freedom. Here he is on a call with investors last month.


ELON MUSK: The extension of the shelter-in-place, or, frankly, I would call it forcibly imprisoning people in their homes against all their constitutional rights - but that's my opinion - and breaking people's freedoms in ways that are horrible and wrong.

DOMONOSKE: Tesla has sued the county over this delay - as the company thinks of it - in reopening. And Musk has also threatened to move the company out of California over this, which would be a fairly extreme decision.

INSKEEP: He seems to be making a fairness argument, or an unfairness argument, saying that only Tesla is still shut down even as its rivals get going.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. I mean, at this point, Tesla is the only major carmaker in California. Other carmakers are in other jurisdictions covered by other rules. Plants in the South are open already. Like you mentioned, Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler are looking to restart this coming Monday. And this was paused for a while, in part, because the state of Michigan needed to give that approval. I'll also note, you know, a lot of businesses have been devastated by this pandemic and a lot of business owners are very frustrated by shutdowns. But if you listen to the executives of other car companies, they're talking a lot about safety measures to reopen. And Elon Musk is really remarkable in this emphasis on anger at the government and public health officials.

INSKEEP: Camila, thanks for the update.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Camila Domonoske. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.