Emboldened by billionaire Elon Musk, a cadre of wealthy tech investors and venture capitalists is pushing for an end to shelter-in-place orders, arguing the harm of the quarantines outweighs the benefits and even equating the measures to forced detention.
Musk railed against the widespread shelter-in-place orders on his electric car company Tesla’s earnings call Wednesday, using harsh language and profanities to describe orders he characterized as “fascist” and as “forcibly imprisoning” people in their homes.
By Thursday, Musk was doubling down — sharing links to articles supporting his position and amplifying the posts of venture capitalists and tech investors who agreed with him.
“Time to free us for the sake of progress,” wrote investor Adam Draper, managing director of the firm Boost VC, in a post retweeted by Musk.
To support the idea of getting back to work before shelter-in-place orders are over, Draper cited a widely read essay by prominent investor and Facebook board member Marc Andreessen called “It’s Time to Build,” but Andreessen’s argument was more about a return to investing in infrastructure and ambitious projects. His firm, Andreessen Horowitz, recently closed its second fund to invest in cryptocurrency.
“Elon Musk is a national treasure,” Andreessen said through a spokesperson.
“There are two certainties in life. One is don’t bet against Elon and the other is gravity,” Draper told the Post. Draper doesn’t intend to break the government’s shelter-in-place order, but he believes people are now aware and observant about public health risks, but not as mindful about the economic impact.
Jason Calacanis, an early investor in numerous companies including Uber, wrote that the decision to remain home should be left to individuals.
“People already have this right, the government is simply lobbying folks to stay home, but they can’t keep them there,” he said on Twitter, another post Musk retweeted.
Tesla investor Ross Gerber also joined Musk in critiquing the orders following the CEO’s missive, pressing California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on the side effects of the orders on mental health and families.
“Have you [done] that calculus?” Gerber asked in a tweet. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In response to questions about his tweet, Gerber said he took objection to the “arbitrary” nature of the closures and said the rollouts equated to politicians picking winning and losers. He said masks and social distancing can serve as effective measures without the need for extreme shelter-in-place orders.
“I believe in the balance of cost vs cure,” he said, “not just cure at all cost. [It’s] been 6 weeks. They should be able to deal with this by now.”
Tesla and Calacanis didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The positions by Silicon Valley’s brashest voices may represent a business interest more than a moral or ideological stand. Like other industries, tech has been beset by layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts during the economic downturn that the novel coronavirus has caused — though some tech companies were also among the first to tell employees to work from home, even before quarantine orders. Musk himself launched into his tirade after highlighting the impact of the Bay Area’s strict shelter-in-place orders’ impact on his Fremont, Calif., factory’s ability to produce cars.
The rhetoric mirrors that of the protesters who have taken to streets in cities around the country demanding the orders come to an end.
Few in Silicon Valley support rushing to reopen. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday expressed concern about what lies ahead for the country. “While there are massive societal costs from the current shelter in place restrictions, I worry that reopening certain places too quickly, before infection rates have been reduced to very minimal levels, will almost guarantee future outbreaks and even worse economic outcomes,” he said.
There is a strong libertarian streak among tech leaders, emboldened in recent weeks by the federal government’s response to the spread of covid-19. Silicon Valley’s self-stylized contrarians who warned their followers about the novel coronavirus early have grown increasingly skeptical of both institutions and established scientific expertise. “The Manhattan Project for the virus is going to end up being the Palo Alto Project,” entrepreneur and investor Balaji S. Srinivasan tweeted in March. “It’s on us. The state doesn’t have tech talent anymore.”
But that crowd has yet to show support for Musk’s call to end shelter-in-place restrictions.
Musk has previously been a conduit for controversial covid-19 information between Silicon Valley libertarians and the White House. In mid-March, for instance, Musk tweeted about the benefits of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, including a paper that had been making the rounds among tech folks who were early to warn about the spread of the virus. Five days later, Trump touted the benefits of hydroxychloroquine.
On Thursday morning, Lincoln Network, a right-leaning political group for tech workers, hosted a Facebook live stream panel called “A Time to Build? Institutional Failure and Reform After COVID,” riffing on Andreessen’s essay. In an email to The Washington Post, Lincoln Network co-founder Garrett Johnson said, “We did not interpret Marc’s essay as a call to end shelter in place and reopen the economy.”
Cities around the country enacted their shelter-in-place orders beginning in March in an effort to limit the spread of the virus and spread out the cases so they did not overwhelm medical systems and cause supply shortages while straining critical care capacity.
“The recession we’re about to enter into is going to be one for the ages and we need a defibrillator shock to restart this economy,” said Draper. With 30 million Americans applying for unemployment, “We should be lining ourselves behind people who are going to be employing people,” like Musk.
Draper says he supports the idea of going back to work even though the pandemic has had a positive impact on his investment portfolio, which includes companies focused on virtual reality and crypto. “When you’re locked in your house, you use VR more and then when the Fed prints $3 trillion, more people move to Bitcoin.”
He believes that there are investors in the tech community on both sides of the argument. “The question ends up being, ‘Where’s the line?’ I think we crossed it. People are going to be washing their hands more, they’re going to be more sensitive of people’s space,” said Draper. Now, “one of the most important things is start employing people again.”
Musk has spent the past month diminishing the seriousness of the response to coronavirus, at one point calling the panic “dumb” and tweeting that “Kids are essentially immune.” Health experts say that is not the case. He shared a YouTube video that suggested quarantines reduced immunity to the virus and called for shelter-in-place orders to end, which YouTube removed for violating its guidelines on coronavirus-related misinformation. He wrote a in a post that the United States would have “close to zero new cases” by the end of April, if trends from March held.
Data from The Post’s coronavirus tracker showed there were more than 28,000 new U.S. cases reported on Thursday.