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Tesla’s Elon Musk receives support from Trump as he reopens factory in defiance of county order

Musk defied local orders to continue to reopen the company’s Fremont, Calif., factory on Tuesday

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said May 11 that he is restarting production in California in defiance of a county order. (Video: Reuters)

FREMONT, Calif. — Tesla’s Elon Musk is in a showdown with California officials over the reopening of a major factory here, one of the most prominent examples of a powerful business defying health orders that require all but essential activities to cease.

Musk continued to ramp up production Tuesday at the company’s Fremont facilities, where Tesla produces its electric vehicles. Workers’ cars filled up the company’s parking lot, with no signs of any enforcement actions by Alameda County officials, who sent a letter Monday telling the company to cease production.

Musk drew public support from the president on Tuesday. “California should let Tesla & @elonmusk open the plant, NOW,” President Trump tweeted. “It can be done Fast & Safely!”

Musk tweeted back, “Thank you!”

That follows a private call with the president and other CEOs last month, on which Musk was agitating to reopen and praising Trump. He said he wanted to return to work by May 1 and, if possible, sooner.

“I do not think it represents a significant risk,” he said, according to two individuals familiar with the discussion, who declined to be named because of the private nature of the interaction. Trump said that he agreed with Musk 100 percent, the people added.

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The president’s interaction with Musk follows weeks of tweets and brash behavior from the Tesla chief executive that downplayed the risk of the coronavirus pandemic and pushed for a quick reopening. As the pandemic took hold and the Bay Area became one of the first regions to order residents to stay at home, Musk tried to keep his factory open and has repeatedly pushed to reopen it over the two months since it closed — this time despite county orders.

Colleen Chalwa, Health Care Services Agency director of Alameda County, sent a letter Monday ordering Tesla to cease production.

“If the reports we have received are true, Tesla is engaging in work beyond Minimum Basic Operations, and is in violation of the Health Officer Order,” she wrote. “These activities must cease until the Health Officer approves Tesla’s site-specific plan as required by the State of California guidance and checklist for manufacturing, and issues an order permitting manufacturing generally.”

Meanwhile, Musk the same day dared local health officials to arrest him. “Tesla is restarting production today against Alameda County rules,” Musk wrote on Twitter. “I will be on the line with everyone else. If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.”

It was the latest escalation following the company’s decision to start calling workers back to the factory last week. Tesla on Saturday filed suit against Alameda County, where its Fremont factory is located, seeking an injunction against orders to stay closed. The suit alleged violations of the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.

Neetu Balram, a spokeswoman for Alameda County, said in a statement Monday that the county hoped to work with Tesla to avoid any further escalation of the issue.

“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,” she said. “We look forward to reviewing Tesla’s plan and coming to agreement on protocol and a timeline to reopen safely,” she added.

Fremont Police would need to enforce the county’s order. Fremont Police spokeswoman Geneva Bosques said there was no update Tuesday. The city’s mayor issued a statement in support of Tesla on Saturday.

In an interview late Monday, Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty added that while dialogue continues with Musk, “I can’t stop him from breaking the health order." He credited the county’s tough stance in part with the low prevalence of the illness in the county, roughly 2,000 cases and 71 deaths.

On the possibility of arrests, Haggerty said, “I would sincerely hope not.” He added, “I don’t think that’s a good view for anybody — especially somebody that’s employing 10,000 of your constituents. I think cooler heads need to prevail on this.”

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment. The company employs about 10,000 workers in Fremont.

Musk calls workers back to the factory (again). Health officials say no (again).

Two workers at Tesla’s Fremont facilities, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared for their jobs, said they were concerned about the sudden escalation of production. One worker who reported to the factory over the weekend said people gathered in groups and there was little enforcement of social distancing practices.

Returning workers are shown an informational video about the need to abide by strict social distancing and given masks. Meanwhile, the factory began once again to churn out Model 3 and Model Y vehicles.

“Everybody’s walking around without their mask on, talking, hanging out talking among themselves,” the worker said. “It’s scary.”

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On Tuesday, workers reporting to the Fremont factory wearing thin surgical masks offered mixed reactions, declining to provide their names because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. One said that work was starting up slowly due to restrictions. Another said Musk was walking around, providing encouragement, while some employees opted to stay home. A food truck pulled onto the property in the morning.

Musk’s aggressive push to reopen has gained the tacit support of conservatives aligned with the president and drawn the ire of liberals, including a California state assemblywoman who punctuated her displeasure with an expletive over the weekend.

Eric Trump, the president’s son, liked Musk’s tweet Monday.

As coronavirus shutdowns have dragged on, some states have moved more quickly to reopen, and protests have broken out to demand an end to the shutdown orders. In Silicon Valley, which has had some of the most restrictive orders in place for the longest time, a handful of tech elites have echoed and promoted Musk’s concerns.

California loosened restrictions earlier this month, allowing some commerce and manufacturing to resume, but stricter county orders supersede the state rules.

Musk launches into expletive-laden rant, calling quarantine measures ‘fascist’

The company said in a blog post Saturday that it planned to reopen and laid out an argument for how it could safely do so. Earlier that day, Musk tweeted that he was considering relocating Tesla’s Palo Alto headquarters, located in another California county, to Texas or Nevada, and lambasted Alameda County’s response.

Musk has repeatedly played down the seriousness of the coronavirus, at one point calling the panic “dumb." On the company’s earnings call late last month, he called the quarantine measures “fascist” and used profanities to describe what he saw as “forcibly imprisoning” people in their homes against their constitutional rights.

Tesla files suit in response to coronavirus restrictions after Musk threatens to relocate operations

Musk’s erratic behavior continued this month when he tweeted that Tesla’s stock price was “too high," sending shares plummeting during the middle of trading on May 1. Since then, he has consistently complained about the stay-at-home orders, saying Tesla has been unfairly singled out among large automakers and railing against California officials.

He took aim at the county’s interim public health officer, Erica Pan, who he derided over the weekend as “an unelected county official” and alleged she “illegally” overrode the state orders — despite county officials‘ ability to supersede them.

Alameda County’s Haggerty said: “She’s not incompetent. That I don’t like. Elon Musk is a very smart man, very focused. I just wish that he wouldn’t disparage some of my staff.”

Musk also tried to keep the factory open at the beginning of the crisis in mid-March, as the Bay Area became the first major region to order residents to stay home. The county at the time told Tesla it did not count as an essential business.

Haggerty said the county’s dialogue with Tesla continues. Musk had pushed for Tesla to be able to staff a stamping plant to produce fenders and doors and other car body parts, ahead of a May 18 reopening date being negotiated by the county.

“That would ensure there was enough parts when everybody came back to work on the 18th,” he said, but the health department’s indicators did not yet say it was safe to do so.

Currently, conditions have affected morale at the plant, the employee who works there said.

“We’re extremely frustrated, angry, scared, that Elon is putting his cars before his workers,” the worker said. “He’s putting those cars before his employees and their well-being.”

In an earnings call April 29, Tesla CEO Elon Musk called the coronavirus lockdowns "fascist," and said people should get back their "freedom.” (Video: Tesla)