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Tesla defied county orders so it could restart production. Days later, workers tested positive for the coronavirus.

Chief executive Elon Musk defied a public health order so his company could resume building cars in Fremont, Calif., last month.

The Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
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SAN FRANCISCO — Tesla workers in California tested positive last month for the novel coronavirus following chief executive Elon Musk’s defiant reopening of the company’s main production facility in Fremont, according to employees with knowledge of the situation.

Two workers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation, told The Washington Post that supervisors held meetings with their teams to disclose the company had reported several cases of the coronavirus, and the employees affected were told to stay home. One of the workers said a supervisor confirmed two positive cases to a group at the Fremont-based seat assembly facility, which is at 901 Page Ave., a short drive from the main production plant.

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

Tesla and Alameda County came to an agreement in May allowing the company to restart production if it adhered to strict social distancing and took extra precautions to avoid exposing workers to the illness. The plant employs about 10,000 workers, who are spread out among multiple shifts and are now required to wear masks and limit contact with others in break rooms, for example, while keeping ample space between one another as they work with heavy machinery to produce electric cars.

As part of the agreement struck allowing Tesla to reopen on May 18, Tesla would have to report all positive cases to the Alameda County Public Health Department. But because Tesla restarted production a week earlier, there could have been cases that were never reported to the county because Tesla was “not required to directly report known cases” before the agreement, county officials said.

There were no known workplace-related infections of county residents associated with Tesla, said county spokeswoman Neetu Balram in an email. During the prior week “if a person tested positive and they were not a resident of Alameda County, it’s possible we would not have that case reported to us,” she added.

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)

The reopening, and subsequent coronavirus cases, follow weeks of tension over the public health order. Musk first defied the rules in March by keeping the plant open before local officials declared Tesla’s vehicle production was not essential and must come to a halt. Musk tweeted “FREE AMERICA NOW” in April before launching into a profane rant on the company’s quarterly earnings call, calling quarantine measures “fascist” just after he expressed concern over the production halt’s impact on the company’s finances. In early May, Tesla sued the county over the order, and Musk threatened to pick up and move the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company to Texas or Nevada. He followed that up by publicly defying the order and opening the plant, daring officials to arrest him and eventually winning the support of President Trump.

The worker, in the separate building from Tesla’s main plant, said those affected included one from Tesla’s morning shift and another from its evening shift. The worker expressed concern over a perceived lack of caution on the production line.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A message for Laurie Shelby, vice president of environment, health and safety at Tesla, went unreturned. Reached by phone, Tesla corporate physician James Craner declined to comment for this story.

The Bay Area ordered millions to shelter in place. Elon Musk had Tesla employees report to work anyway.

Some workers described an environment of uncertainty and fear around the restart of production, noting how some on their production lines might disappear for two weeks without explanation — a likely effect of extreme precautions being taken for anyone who develops symptoms.

“No social distancing at all when clocking in/out [because] people are … in a hurry to go home or get back to their work station,” the individual in the seat assembly plant said in a text message. As far as social distancing, the worker said, management “don’t say anything to the associates [because] they’re not doing it either.”

As for the changes: “It’s like nothing but with a mask on,” the worker said.

The worker said three people who had been quarantined because of potential exposure had returned to work, but those who tested positive haven’t returned to the line.

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