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Elon Musk Reopens California Tesla Plant, Defying Local Health Officials (Again)


The auto industry is returning to work. Michigan's governor authorized General Motors, Ford and Chrysler factories to restart with social distancing measures in place. Tesla operates under different authorities in Fremont, Calif. And Tesla founder Elon Musk is not happy that those local authorities have yet to change their guidance. He defied those officials by saying he's going to reopen his factory anyway. Camila Domonoske covers the car industry for NPR, and she's on the line. Good morning.


INSKEEP: OK. So did the Tesla factory reopen?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. A lot of people showed up for work yesterday. The parking lot was full, and then CEO Elon Musk confirmed on Twitter that production had resumed, although the county had not approved it yet. He said, quote, "I will be on the line with everyone else. If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me." And I should note here, the county has not been going around arresting people for violating this shelter-in-place order. It's handing out warnings and citations, for the most part.

INSKEEP: Well, what are government officials saying about what Musk did?

DOMONOSKE: Well, Alameda County officials say that they have notified Tesla it cannot operate like normal yet. And they hope that that will do the trick with no further enforcement. They also really emphasized that there's a process for reopening. Businesses make a safety plan that the county approves. And it's not that they've denied Tesla's request to reopen. They're working on approving a plan that just needs to be submitted and then given the OK.

Then there's the governor. California Governor Gavin Newsom has said that manufacturing can resume in California. But it's up to individual counties to make their decisions about how and when that happens exactly. Yesterday, he was asked about this, and he praised Elon Musk. But he was also evidently surprised Tesla is back in operation.


GAVIN NEWSOM: My understanding is when I walked up to the podium today, that wasn't the case.

DOMONOSKE: He says he's respecting the rights of local health officials to make decisions for their communities. And he expects Tesla to be approved to reopen in as little as a week.

INSKEEP: I guess this dispute is maybe a little less than it seems if it's just about the exact day and the exact mode of the reopening. But hasn't there been tension between Elon Musk and health officials in California for some time?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. When the pandemic began, Tesla initially stayed open in defiance of these same local health officials. And in the weeks since, he's started calling the shelter-in-place order an assault on freedom. Here he is on a call with investors last month.


ELON MUSK: The extension of the shelter-in-place, or, frankly, I would call it forcibly imprisoning people in their homes against all their constitutional rights - but that's my opinion - and breaking people's freedoms in ways that are horrible and wrong.

DOMONOSKE: Tesla has sued the county over this delay - as the company thinks of it - in reopening. And Musk has also threatened to move the company out of California over this, which would be a fairly extreme decision.

INSKEEP: He seems to be making a fairness argument, or an unfairness argument, saying that only Tesla is still shut down even as its rivals get going.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. I mean, at this point, Tesla is the only major carmaker in California. Other carmakers are in other jurisdictions covered by other rules. Plants in the South are open already. Like you mentioned, Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler are looking to restart this coming Monday. And this was paused for a while, in part, because the state of Michigan needed to give that approval. I'll also note, you know, a lot of businesses have been devastated by this pandemic and a lot of business owners are very frustrated by shutdowns. But if you listen to the executives of other car companies, they're talking a lot about safety measures to reopen. And Elon Musk is really remarkable in this emphasis on anger at the government and public health officials.

INSKEEP: Camila, thanks for the update.

DOMONOSKE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's Camila Domonoske. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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