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Trump joins the fray over Tesla plant reopening amid coronavirus restrictions

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said Monday that Tesla would restart production at its plant in Fremont, Calif., and flout county officials who ordered the company to keep the factory closed. Above, inside the assembly plant.
(Russ Mitchell / Los Angeles Times)

Elon Musk thanked President Trump for endorsing his reopening of Tesla Inc.’s only U.S. car plant, a day after the chief executive publicly acknowledged he risked being arrested for defying a county order.

“California should let Tesla & @elonmusk open the plant, NOW,” Trump wrote in a tweet Tuesday. “It can be done Fast & Safely!”

Musk, who said Monday that Tesla would restart production at its plant in Fremont, Calif., and flout county officials who ordered the company to keep the factory closed, responded with appreciation hours later.

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Health officers for Alameda County and six other San Francisco Bay area municipalities decided in late April to extend their restrictions on businesses through the end of May. While Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last week that he would let manufacturers in parts of the state reopen starting May 8, he also said local authorities could keep stricter measures in place.

Overnight, Musk sent an email to employees: “Just wanted to send you a note of appreciation for working hard to make Tesla successful. It is so cool seeing the factory come back to life and you are making it happen!!” he wrote in the message seen by Bloomberg.

When asked on Twitter how Monday went at the factory, Musk replied Tuesday: “Great.” Tesla’s shares fell slightly at the close of trading Tuesday, and were off 0.8% at $803 in after-hours trading. The stock price has almost doubled this year.

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Two workers who have returned to work at the plant said they were required to watch a safety-training video. One said the company handed out masks and had put up plexiglass stations in the break room. Another said plastic curtains hang from the ceiling as barriers to keep workers separated from one another, and that the carmaker is taking employees’ temperature using thermal scanners.

Musk’s emailed words of encouragement to his staff followed tweets in which he claimed Tesla would move its headquarters and future programs to Nevada or Texas and may even cease manufacturing in California. To follow through on those threats, the CEO would have to uproot many of the roughly 20,000 employees the carmaker has in the San Francisco Bay Area. About half of the company’s headcount is at the factory.

He wrote Saturday that Tesla would decide whether to keep manufacturing in Fremont based on how Tesla is treated in the future.

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After prevailing in a defamation suit and emerging mostly unscathed from a court fight with the Securities and Exchange Commission last year, Musk is waging another legal battle. This time, he’s tangling with health officials over measures to contain a virus that he downplayed starting in January.

Musk has claimed COVID-19 isn’t all that viral a disease, called panic about it “dumb” and theorized fatality rates are overstated. He has also promoted the antimalarial drugs President Donald Trump embraced that haven’t proved effective and wrongly predicted that new cases would be close to zero by the end of April.

Tesla sent Alameda County a new plan for meeting criteria to reopen Monday, and the county is in the process of reviewing it, a spokesperson said Tuesday. In a statement Monday, the county said the Fremont plant was operating beyond what was allowed and that it hoped the company would “comply without further enforcement measures.”

Tesla’s standoff with California has come to represent the tense debate playing out in states and counties across America over how fast businesses should be allowed to reopen. The nation’s top infectious disease official, Anthony Fauci, warned against reopening the economy too soon during a Senate hearing Tuesday, saying that doing so risks new coronavirus outbreaks throughout the U.S.

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Trump’s supportive Twitter post followed words of encouragement that Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin offered to Musk on Monday.

“He’s one of the biggest employers and manufacturers in California,” Mnuchin told CNBC. “California should prioritize doing whatever they need to do to solve those health issues so that he can open quickly and safely.”


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