As Elon Musk Feuds With Alameda County, Tesla Reopens Fremont Plant

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Telsa employees work outside a Tesla showroom in Burbank, California, on March 24, 2020.  (Robyn Beck/AFP-Getty Images)

Updated 4:55 p.m. Monday

Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced Monday that the company has reopened its electric car plant in Fremont in defiance of Alameda County's COVID-19 health orders that shut down the facility in late March.

Musk, acknowledging on Twitter that there might be legal consequences to reopening the factory, wrote, "I will be on the line with everyone else. If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me."

Alameda County issued a statement saying it had notified the company it's violating current coronavirus health orders by going beyond the minimum operations necessary for maintenance of the facility.

"We are addressing this matter using the same phased approach we use for other businesses which have violated the order in the past, and we hope that Tesla will likewise comply without further enforcement measures," the statement said.

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Musk's announcement came after several news organizations noted Monday morning that the plant's employee parking lot was nearly full.

The facility employs about 10,000 workers, and having a normal complement of workers on-site would violate directives orders from the Alameda County Public Health Department. The agency has deemed Tesla’s Fremont factory a nonessential business that can’t open under ongoing restrictions to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Alameda County Sheriff spokesman Sgt. Ray Kelly said Monday it would be up to the Fremont Police Department to enforce the health order. State law allows a fine of up to $1,000 per day or up to 90 days in jail for operating in violation of health orders.

The reopening came after a sharp escalation of Musk's and Tesla's long-running disagreement with the county over whether the plant should be closed while shelter-at-home orders are in place.

A statement posted by Tesla on its website Saturday night said the company “has started the process of resuming operations” but didn’t say when manufacturing would actually begin.

Technology news site The Verge, quoting two anonymous plant employees, reported Monday that production had resumed at the facility over the weekend.

On Saturday, Tesla filed suit against Alameda County seeking to overturn the order, and Musk threatened to move Tesla’s manufacturing and headquarters operations out of the state.

Tesla contends in the lawsuit that Alameda County can’t be more restrictive than orders from California Gov. Gavin Newsom. The lawsuit says the governor’s coronavirus restrictions refer to federal guidelines classifying “vehicles and commercial ships manufacturing” as essential businesses that are allowed to continue operating.

“Frankly, this is the final straw,” Musk wrote in a now-deleted tweet. “Tesla will now move its HQ and future programs to Texas/Nevada immediately.”

He wrote that whether the company keeps any manufacturing in Fremont depends on how Tesla is treated in the future.

Newsom has said repeatedly that counties can impose restrictions that are more stringent than state orders. Alameda County was among six San Francisco Bay Area counties and the city of Berkeley in imposing stay-at-home orders in mid-March.

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During a Monday coronavirus briefing, Newsom downplayed the dispute between Tesla and the county and said he hadn't heard the plant had reopened.

"My understanding is they have had some very constructive conversations, and my belief and hope and expectation is as early as next week they’ll be able to resume," Newsom said.

Newsom went on to say he had "great reverence" for Tesla's "technology, for their innovative spirit, for their leadership."

"I have great expectations that we can work through at the county level the issue with this particular county and this company in the next number of days," Newsom said. "So, look, I have more confidence moving forward in our ability to support a company that this state has substantively supported for now many, many years. And in return, we have been beneficiaries of their incredible growth, ingenuity and innovative spirit. We look forward to many, many decades of that relationship."

In their statement Monday, Alameda County health authorities said they had been "collaborating in good faith" on a plan to reopen the Tesla plant with safety measures the company has already agreed to adopt. Those steps including improving employee health screening procedures and engaging front-line workers on their concerns and feedback regarding safety protocols.

"We look forward to reviewing Tesla's plan and coming to agreement on protocol and a timeline to reopen safely," the county statement said.

Tesla said in a 38-page "Return to Work Playbook" released Saturday night it has safety procedures to protect workers including increased cleaning, enforcement of social distancing, providing face coverings and gloves where needed, installing barriers between workers when necessary and worker temperature checks at “some locations.”

Scott Haggerty, a member of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors whose district includes the Tesla plant, said Monday he has been in talks with health officials and Tesla plant executives for three weeks working toward a May 18 reopening of the facility. He said until the end of last weeks, the discussions "were always very cordial."

"It's really working with them to make sure the proper policies and procedures are in place, to make sure that when their employees come back, they come back safe," Haggerty said in an interview. "That has been the number one focus of my public health director."

Haggerty said company officials pressed for an earlier opening to the resumption of operations. Then Tesla filed its lawsuit and Musk fired his Twitter fusillade. One tweet included a swipe at the county's interim health officer, Dr. Erica Pan, whom musk characterized as "ignorant."

The supervisor said that Monday, despite "some nasty things" said about Pan, the dialogue between health officials and plant managers was continuing.

Musk is "used to moving at the speed of sound and he wants everybody around him to do the very same thing," Haggerty said. "The county wasn't in that position. They have to be very methodical in how they open this this economy back up, get people back to work, and we have to do it to make sure people are safe."

As to Musk's threatening tweets and the company lawsuit, Haggerty said, "I'm sure he has his reasonings for what he's doing. I kind of wish in my heart of hearts that he had not done it because we were so darn close and we wouldn't even be the story of the day."

Musk has issued a series of bitterly critical tweets about the stay-home order since the company’s April 29 first-quarter earnings were released. He has called the restrictions "fascist."

Tesla’s reopening comes as other automakers are starting to reopen factories in the U.S. Toyota also planned to restart production Monday, while General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler all plan to restart their plants gradually next week.

This story includes reporting from KQED's Sara Hossaini and The Associated Press.

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