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U.S. Automakers Are Slowly Rolling Toward A Restart


The U.S. auto industry is now restarting its collective engine after being idled for weeks by the coronavirus. The first wave of plants reopened today, and these plants look a little different than before, as NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: A couple of weeks ago, Mark "Gibby" Gibson went on a video tour of Detroit Diesel, a plant that makes truck engines when it's not shut down for a global pandemic.

MARK GIBSON: I thought at least I'd come out and show you guys what's been going out - on in production while you've been out.

DOMONOSKE: Gibson is a shop chairman at the plant. He was showing his union members the new safety protocols being put in place to prepare for reopening, like plastic sheeting.

GIBSON: Here I'm at the piston stuffer. You see how they got a curtain up here now 'cause there's usually two people, you know, on each side of the block.

DOMONOSKE: He pointed out health-check stations and sanitizer bottles and tapped on a large clear shield.

GIBSON: Here's some things the trades have, you know, got together for us and put up to separate, obviously, any, you know, mist or particles from your mouth, your nose.

DOMONOSKE: Before coronavirus, none of this was here. Now it's the new reality, Gibson says. Several auto plants in the South, like Kia and BMW, started back up today. Michigan is still under a stay-at-home order, so Detroit Diesel remains closed. But it has to get ready. These plants weren't designed for people to be able to stay six feet apart.

Ralph Morris Jr. is the president of the local union.

RALPH MORRIS JR: Right now, there's a lot of high anxiety. I mean, you read about the meat processing plants. And in a factory setting, unless, you know, the precautionary measures are taken, you know, it could spread through the whole facility.

DOMONOSKE: Questions about how to reopen in a way that's safe for workers have caused many companies to push back their plans to resume operations. America's big three - Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler - haven't confirmed a start date yet. Their workers are represented by the United Auto Workers union, which has called for more testing because people without symptoms can spread the disease.

Kiersten Robinston (ph) is the chief human resources officer for Ford Motor Company. On a call with reporters last week, she addressed the issue.


KIERSTEN ROBINSON: I think the bottom line is, based on all the information we have access to, we will not have a reliable and scalable testing solution for several weeks, and it may even be months.

DOMONOSKE: For now, Ford says it will send employees who feel sick to be tested for COVID-19, but the company can't offer its own tests to all employees yet. There's intense pressure on companies to figure this out and soon. The plant closures are costing the industry billions of dollars. Hundreds of thousands of workers are affected.

And customers are already starting to buy cars again. Sean Suggs is the president of the Toyota plant in Blue Springs, Miss., where they build Corollas. He says the plant reopening will be gradual.

SEAN SUGGS: We're not going to just flip a switch, and everything's going to be back to normal. There is no going back to the normal way. We simply can't operate the way we operated before COVID-19.

DOMONOSKE: The Blue Springs plant is planning to reopen next Monday, May 11.

SUGGS: Day 1, we probably won't even produce a vehicle. We're going to get our team members back and get them acclimated to the new way of life.

DOMONOSKE: With 100% temperature checks and 100% face masks, it'll be a long time before that way of life feels 100% normal.

Camila Domonoske, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.