This Monday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted that the California Tesla factory had restarted operations, in violation of local shelter-in-place measures. Musk has stated that he will be on the premises and requested that he and not his employees be arrested if such enforcement is necessary. Earlier this week, he threatened to move his entire 10,000-worker factory from California to Nevada, should authorities prevent him from reopening shop.
Factory Reopens Despite Lockdown
The Tesla plant is located in Fremont, California, a city in the southern part of the Bay Area. In March, Alameda County authorities instituted strict lockdown measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. As a result, Tesla’s factory closed on March 23.
But Musk’s request to reopen this week, which follows extensive steps taken by the company to ensure a safe working environment for employees, was denied by local authorities. Despite Governor Gavin Newsom’s piecemeal plan to reopen California’s economy, lockdown orders remain in effect in Alameda County until the end of May. This week, Musk has taken to Twitter in a string of diatribes against the continued shutdown.
Current California policy threatens lockdown violators with a fine of $1,000 per day of operation and/or up to 90 days in jail. Musk wrote that he will happily take his chances. By Monday morning, the factory parking lot was almost full, and new Tesla vehicles were already being shipped out of the factory.
Local Authorities Play Hot Potato
Alameda County, which includes Fremont, has tried to distance itself from the controversy, resulting in a game of pass-the-responsibility. The County Sheriff Sgt. Ray Kelly announced that the local Fremont Police Department would be in charge of any enforcement decisions, but Geneva Bosques, a spokesperson for Fremont Police, said that the decision would have to come from the County Health Department. Meanwhile, the Health Department has made no statement at all.
The only person with unitary power to lift the shutdown order on Tesla is Governor Newsom. When asked during a press conference whether he would permit Tesla to proceed with operations, he claimed to have no knowledge of Tesla’s reopening.
Political Shift for Musk
Musk’s public demand to reopen the Tesla factory, and his rage against the Democratic establishment in blue California, highlight a growing cultural debate that defies partisan lines.
Musk, who frequently touts politically liberal views, and whose company often serves wealthy liberals who support environmental sustainability, has seemed to echo President Trump in recent days, weaponizing Twitter in a manner reminiscent of the current commander-in-chief. Trump has shown his support for the billionaire, tweeting “California should let Tesla & @elonmusk open the plant, NOW. It can be done Fast & Safely!”
But Musk’s libertarian battlecries have been ill-received by some Democratic leaders in California. Former United States Labor Secretary Robert Reich, currently a professor at UC Berkeley, tweeted, “We don’t need callous billionaires with little regard for workers telling us what to do right now. Don’t let them put their own profit over people’s lives during a pandemic.”
Progressive State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez made her feelings more succinct: “F*ck Elon Musk.”
Back in Washington, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin left it to the state to decide, maintaining that “California should prioritize doing whatever they need to do to solve those health issues so that he can open quickly and safely.”
As for Tesla stock, it’s currently up 2.33%, but time will tell whether Musk’s volatile behavior will have an effect on investor confidence. As of Tuesday, there are no official plans to move the factory to Nevada.