The Tesla Fremont Factory Roller Coaster — Reopening Or Not Reopening?

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The state of California relaxed some of its coronavirus-related restrictions last  Thursday. Among other things, the change in policy allows manufacturing companies to restart operations if they can show they have taken prudent steps to protect workers from contracting the virus while at work. The move was greeted enthusiastically by Elon Musk. “Yeah!” he said on Twitter.

Following the announcement from the state, Musk sent an email to all Fremont employees advising them to prepare for a return to work, according to CNBC. “In light of Governor Newsom’s statement earlier today approving manufacturing in California, we will aim to restart production in Fremont tomorrow afternoon. I will be on the line personally helping wherever I can. However, if you feel uncomfortable coming back to work at this time, please do not feel obligated to do so. These are difficult times, so thanks very much for working hard to make Tesla successful!”

Later, Valerie Capers Workman, head of human resources for Tesla, sent a separate email to US employees on Thursday night with additional details. She said Tesla’s Fremont plant will resume “limited operations” Friday, bringing back around 30% of employees normally working on a shift. Those being called back must complete video training on new safety protocols meant to keep them safe from Covid-19, Workman said.

Hold The Phone!

When the lockdown first began, Musk butted head with officials from the County of Alameda where the Fremont factory is located over whether manufacturing was an essential activity. Musk said it was. The county said it was not and reportedly sent deputy sheriffs to the factory to enforce the county policy. Now, a similar controversy is brewing because Governor Newsom’s order says specifically that local policies have priority over the state plan to reopen the economy. Alameda County has a lockdown order in place that does not expire until May 31.

Erica Pan, interim health officer for the Alameda County Public Health Department, said in an online town hall meeting Friday that even though California had relaxed Covid-19 restrictions at the state level, that legally, “If there are local orders, whichever is stricter prevails. We have not given the green light. We have been working with them looking at some of their safety plans. But no, we have not said that it is appropriate to move forward,” she added, according to CNBC.

Pan said she expected to know more in a week or two about whether the county could allow manufacturers, including Tesla, to reopen their factories. A spokesperson for the Health Department issued a statement saying, “We have informed Tesla of all of the conditions that must exist for phasing in the safe reopening of various sectors of the economy and the community. All businesses within the County must comply with the May 4th Health Officer Order and if a business does not meet the limited criteria stated in that Order to reopen, then they are out of compliance.

“Tesla has been informed that they do not meet those criteria and must not reopen. We welcome Tesla’s proactive work on a reopening plan so that once they fit the criteria to reopen, they can do so in a way that protects their employees and the community at large.”

Tesla continued to say 30% of its workforce is expected back at work this weekend but whether they will be manufacturing cars or simply taking steps to reopen the Fremont factory when the county lockdown order is lifted is unknown at this time. And then …

As you may have seen on Twitter this morning, or at any point since then, Musk decided to sue the county.

Furthermore, Musk said he’d relocate Tesla’s HQ to Texas or Nevada and perhaps even the manufacturing that goes on in Fremont.

Supporters have come to Tesla’s defense, highlighting that it operates a gigafactory in China that has gotten through the lockdown phase and fully restarted operations there (weeks ago). Musk was quickly to agree with his supporters, adding comments about Gigafactory 1 in Nevada and other parts of California as well.

Apparently, the threat to leave California woke up some elected officials in the region. The Mayor of Palo Alto, Adrian Fine, offered his help on Twitter.

Perhaps more significantly for Musk and Tesla, the Mayor of Fremont, Lily Mei, published a statement in support of Musk’s intentions.

“As the local shelter-in-place order continues without provisions for major manufacturing activity, such as Tesla, to resume, I am growing concerned about the potential implications for our regional economy.  We know many essential businesses have proven they can successfully operate using strict safety and social distancing practices.  I strongly believe these same practices could be possible for other manufacturing businesses, especially those that are so critical to our employment base. The City encourages the County to engage with our local businesses to come up with acceptable guidelines for re-opening our local economy.  As we have done for over a decade, the City is prepared to support Tesla as soon as they are able to resume automobile manufacturing operations and are committed to a thoughtful, balanced approach to this effort that remains safe for our Fremont community.”

How much will the support of mayors in the region and tens or hundreds of thousands of others pressuring Alameda County have an effect on the negotiations this weekend? We’ll see. This is a developing story, so more details may be available at any time.

Top image by Chanan Bos/CleanTechnica

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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