As Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk forced a showdown with Alameda County and re-started some operations at his company’s massive manufacturing plant in Fremont, local elected officials spent Tuesday trying to find a satisfactory solution to the matter that could ensure the safety of workers amid the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
Meanwhile President Trump tweeted his support for Musk’s decision, applying more pressure and attention on the confrontation.
The city of Fremont found itself in the middle. It is responsible for enforcing the Alameda County health orders that Musk was ignoring to reopen the plant. But officials expressed hope the county and Tesla can work out an agreement that would avoid the city taking action against its largest employer.
Councilman Vinnie Bacon said the city is not forcing Tesla to shut down its factory because the company and Alameda County health officials are negotiating over a plan to make sure Tesla employees are in a safe working environment even as the current operations at the factory fly in the face of the law.
“We are the enforcement agency, but as of now, they are negotiating, so we’re basically hoping those negotiations go well. So we’re not stepping in at this point. I think that’s the more prudent approach as opposed to going in guns blazing,” Bacon said.
In March, Tesla delayed closing the plant for days after Alameda and five other Bay Area counties issued health orders that shut down normal life, including requiring companies to cease operations. Now the maverick automaker Musk is resuming production in violation of the latest order.
Over the weekend, Musk said Tesla was suing Alameda County over the shelter-in-place order, and threatened to move the company’s headquarters, and possible all of its manufacturing operations, out California depending on “how Tesla is treated in the future.”
In a letter sent Monday night to Laurie Shelby, Tesla’s vice president of environmental, health, and safety, Alameda County health care services agency director Colleen Chawla said that Tesla could maintain “minimum basic operations” at Fremont, such as facility security, inventory tracking and payroll services.
But, Chawla said that her office had received reports that Tesla had been doing more than minimum basic work at the Fremont plant, and that, “These activities must cease until the health officer approves Tesla’s site-specific plan as required by the State of California guidance and checklist for manufacturing, and issues an order permitting manufacturing generally.”
The situation came to a head on Monday, when Musk tweeted that Tesla had re-started auto production in Fremont, “against Alameda County rules.” Tesla employs about 10,000 workers and builds its Model 3, Model S, Model X and Model Y vehicles at its Fremont plant.
Musk also said that he would be on the production line with Tesla employees, and said he was willing to go to jail rather than keep the company’s plant closed any longer.
“I will be on the line with everyone else,” Musk said. “If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.”
The issue of Tesla’s re-opening garnered national attention when on Tuesday morning, President Trump threw his support behind Musk’s controversial efforts to get Tesla’s cars again rolling off the assembly line.
Trump, who like Musk uses Twitter as his main tool for putting his opinions out in public, tweeted Tuesday that California should waste no more time in letting Tesla get back up and running.
“California should let Tesla & @elonmusk open the plant, NOW,” tweeted Trump. “It can be done Fast & Safely!”
Tesla didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about Trump’s support for the company’s re-opening, or any negotiations it is having with Alameda County or the city of Fremont. On Saturday, Tesla posted some details of it re-opening plan on its company blog, but it hasn’t said how many people will initially come back to work at Fremont, or how long it might be before it its plant is fully operational.
Bacon called the ongoing situation with Tesla “untenable” and that it needs to be resolved soon.
“I’m OK with letting this go for a day for a day or two,” Bacon said of the negotiations. “Obviously there are economic implications that are being considered, especially when he’s (Musk) threatening to move his jobs away.”
Fremont Mayor Lily Mei, who also drives a Tesla, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Other Fremont city leaders acknowledged the trickiness of the situation, saying that there must be a way to balance the economic importance of Tesla’s manufacturing operations with ensuring as much as possible that the plant’s re-opening falls in line with progress being made against coronavirus.
“Tesla is an important partner for the city of Fremont and a part of Silicon Valley,” said Fremont Councilman Raj Salwan said in a text message Tuesday. However, Salwan added that he doesn’t think Tesla should get any special privileges, either, and noted that many much smaller business are suffering as a result of the pandemic.
“I’m not advocating for arresting Elon,” Salwan said. “But, I’m sure there are ways to cease (Tesla’s) operations especially considering we are only a few days away from reopening of manufacturing,”
Salwan, who owns a Tesla, said, he loves his car, “but no one is above the law.”
Yang Shao, another Fremont councilman, who owns a Tesla said, “I am for dialogue and I am for collaboration,” and that he doesn’t believe the city of Fremont is giving Tesla any special treatment.
“You cannot just say it’s as simple whether you enforce the law or not,” said Shao, who deferred to the county when asked whether Fremont should force the shutdown of the factory
Fremont police spokeswoman Geneva Bosques said in an email Monday night that the police department, “Remains in contact with the Alameda County Public Health Officer surrounding their direct communications with Tesla. We would be the lead agency if assistance is needed for compliance with the order.”
Bay Area News Group reporter David DeBolt contributed to this story.
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