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Tesla’s Fremont factory was in full swing despite Bay Area coronavirus lockdown

Tesla’s Freemont factory
Tesla workers coming off the night shift wait to board buses at the Fremont factory.
(Russ Mitchell / Los Angeles Times)

Tesla’s Fremont, Calif., factory was up and running at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, despite the “shelter in place” lockdown issued by Alameda County and several other Bay Area counties the day before.

Workers leaving the plant after the night shift said the automobile plant was churning out cars as usual — the Model 3, the Model X, the Model S and the newest Model Y. The parking lot was packed to capacity with about 3,000 cars, as dozens of morning-shift workers searched for overlooked spaces. Workers even parked in fire lanes.

Dozens of shuttles and full-size buses ferried morning workers to the factory and took night-shift workers away. Departing workers packed shoulder to shoulder at the door of each bus, waiting to get on. The buses take workers to offsite lots and as far away as Tracy and Stockton.

As the coronavirus pandemic hits the economy, 18% of U.S. adults surveyed said they’d been laid off or had their work hours cut.
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As of late Tuesday, though, it was unclear how long Tesla would be able to continue car manufacturing in Fremont.

Businesses throughout the Bay Area closed following the government orders that became effective at midnight Monday. Exceptions were made for a long list of “essential businesses.”

According to the Alameda County Public Health Department, businesses allowed to operate under the three-week order “include healthcare operations; businesses that provide food, shelter, and social services, and other necessities of life for economically disadvantaged or otherwise needy individuals; fresh and non-perishable food retailers (including convenience stores); pharmacies; child care facilities; gas stations; banks; laundry businesses and services necessary for maintaining the safety, sanitation and essential operation of a residence.”

The order from the counties that are affected also exempts “gas stations and auto-supply, auto-repair, and related facilities,” but does not specifically exempt automobile manufacturing.

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On Monday night, Alameda County spokesman Ray Kelly said Tesla qualified as an “essential business.” But he reversed that Tuesday evening and said, “Tesla is not an essential business as defined in the Alameda County health order.” He said his earlier statement was based on what he believed to be true at the time.

Kelly also serves as spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, which issued a tweet on the matter Tuesday afternoon.

It is unclear how that might affect Tesla’s ability to keep the factory running. Businesses deemed nonessential while the coronavirus pandemic runs its course — most businesses in the Bay Area covered by the order — are still allowed to operate “minimum basic operations.” The county order defines those as “the minimum necessary activities to maintain the value of of the business’s inventory, ensure security, process payroll and employee benefits or for related functions.”

Kelly declined to say what that means in Tesla’s case, and he added that Alameda County officials were talking with Tesla.

Tesla did not respond to requests for comment. The company’s share price dropped 5% in after-hours trading.

Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk sent an email to employees Monday night saying they could stay home if they wanted, but that the factory would remain open.

“My frank opinion is that the harm from the coronavirus panic far exceeds that of the virus itself,” he wrote. He said that COVID-19 cases “will not exceed 0.1% of the population.”

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“I will personally be at work, but that’s just me,” he wrote, and ended the email with, “I’d rather you were at home and not stressed, than at work and worried.”

Workers, none of whom was willing to share their name, seemed philosophical.

“I need to pay the bills, man,” one worker told The Times on his way into the manufacturing plant. His female companion, however, said she was hoping the plant would close and she would get paid sick days. “I want my free time off!” she said.

One woman leaving the night shift on the assembly line identified herself as her team’s safety representative. Asked to lay out the factory’s coronavirus safety protocol, she said, “Stay hydrated, when you take a break wash your hands, don’t stand by any [ventilation] fans, if you feel sick tell your supervisor.”

She was asked if she thought the plant’s workers are safe.

“Yeah, I think they’re safe.” Then she smiled. “For now.”

Musk wrote in his email that there is no confirmed case of COVID-19 among Tesla’s 56,000 employees worldwide, as far as he knew.

The United Autoworkers Union has pressured General Motors, Ford and Fiat-Chrysler to take more serious action to protect factory workers. On Tuesday, those automakers agreed to rotating plant shutdowns to contain the virus’ spread.

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Tesla workers are not represented by a union.

At least one parent of a Tesla worker is concerned. One mother who lives in the Bay Area city of Lafayette wrote to The Times that she is concerned about her 32-year-old son, who works in the Fremont factory.

“It is ridiculous to say people can stay home if they want. The choice is to put your health and those around you at risk or lose your job permanently. That is so wrong,” she wrote. She asked that her name not be used because “I do not want my son to suffer repercussions.”


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