Tesla’s California factory remains open after coronavirus shelter-in-place order

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Tesla is keeping its Fremont, California, car factory open following a new order from the Alameda County government ordering nonessential businesses to close down to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to Bloomberg and the Los Angeles Times. This comes just days after CEO Elon Musk underplayed the pandemic in an email to employees of his other company, SpaceX.

Notorious for massive end-of-quarter efforts to make and sell as many vehicles as possible, the Silicon Valley automaker just started deliveries of its fifth electric car, the Model Y compact SUV, this past weekend ahead of the end of the first quarter on March 31st.

In a new email to Tesla staff regarding the order, though, Musk told employees to “not feel obligated to come to work” if they “feel the slightest bit ill or even uncomfortable.” Musk said he plans to keep going to work at the factory. He said he is unaware of anyone at the factory testing positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Musk said in his email to SpaceX employees last week that the risk of death from COVID-19, “is *vastly* less than the risk of death from driving your car home.” He wrote that, in the US, there are “about 36 thousand automotive deaths per [year], as compared to 36 so far this year for C19.” Since that email, 49 more people have died from the disease in the US. On March 6th, he tweeted that the “coronavirus panic is dumb.”

“My frank opinion remains that the harm from the coronavirus panic far exceeds that of the virus itself,” Musk wrote. “If there is a massive redirection of medical resources out of proportion to the danger, it will result in less available care to those with critical medical needs, which does not serve the greater good.”

It’s unclear exactly how Tesla is able to stay open following the new order. The Times reports that Tesla has been deemed an “essential business,” despite not seeming to fit any of the definitions laid out in Tuesday’s order. It’s also not clear if workers who stay home will be paid. Tesla representatives have not responded to emails, texts, or phone calls requesting comment. Musk did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Tesla is one of the bigger employers in Alameda County, with some 10,000 employees located in Fremont. There are 18 confirmed cases in the county of COVID-19, but the San Francisco Bay Area has seen an increase of confirmed cases as testing ramps up.

In response, county leaders and the mayor of San Francisco announced on Monday that, for three weeks, they are requiring people to stay in their homes except for “essential activities” and telling nonessential businesses to close. In the text of the order, essential businesses include health care operations, grocery stores and other food providers, news outlets, banks, hardware stores, postal services, laundromats, restaurants (but only for take-out or delivery), and others. The order allows “[g]as stations and auto-supply, auto-repair, and related facilities” to remain open as essential businesses, as well as “[a]irlines, taxis, and other private transportation providers providing transportation services necessary for Essential Activities.”

When asked by the Los Angeles Times how Tesla was deemed to be an essential business, the public information officer for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department said: “That’s a good question,” and reportedly promised more information would be forthcoming. “We’re in uncharted waters right now.” Alameda County’s public information officer did not respond to requests for comment, and calls to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office went unanswered.

In a follow-up email to Tesla staff, the company’s head of human resources said that vehicle manufacturing and energy infrastructure “are deemed crucial sectors,” as Bloomberg paraphrased.

Other automakers have told much of their workforces to work remotely as the novel coronavirus spreads, but they are keeping their factories open in the US — at least for now. But they are also under increased pressure to close them.

Workers at a Fiat Chrysler plant in Canada walked out late last week after the local union feared that the virus was spreading in the factory’s workforce. Fiat Chrysler factory employees in the US have also started speaking out about alleged unsanitary conditions, with some also briefly walking out earlier this week.

Volkswagen announced on Tuesday that it will start shutting down its factories across Europe, though its Chattanooga, Tennessee, facility remains open. Ford is also shutting down European production plants, though it is currently maintaining operations in the US. Renault, the PSA Group, and other European manufacturers have shut down factories on the continent as well.

In January, Tesla closed its newly opened Shanghai factory as the coronavirus spread across China, though only after the government ordered it and other companies to do so. Tesla has told its non-factory workers in the US to self-quarantine if they’ve recently traveled to Italy, China, South Korea, Iran, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, according to a leaked memo obtained by Business Insider last week. But it’s unclear why that guidance didn’t include any European countries, especially after the World Health Organization deemed Europe to be the “epicenter” of the pandemic. Its other factories in Nevada and New York also remain open.

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