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Editorial: Don’t cave in to Elon Musk’s coronavirus tantrum

Elon Musk says the subsidies for two of his companies, Tesla and SolarCity, are “a pittance” compared with government support of the oil and gas industry.
(Los Angeles Times)

Elon Musk is a billionaire who will, on occasion, tweet ridiculous things, act impulsively, display a prodigious ego and act as if the law doesn’t apply to him. And now he’s throwing a tantrum that threatens the state’s ability to move safely and smartly out its current lockdown.

It would be great if we could just ignore Musk as he broadcast his sometimes trenchant, sometimes bizarre musings to 34 million Twitter followers. (“I am selling almost all physical possessions. Will own no house.”) But he’s also the leader of Tesla and Space X, which employ thousands of people.

On Monday, Musk defied Alameda County health department orders and reopened Tesla’s electric car manufacturing plant in Fremont, tweeting Monday afternoon, “I will be on the line with everyone else. If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.” Insisting that Gov. Gavin Newsom had given “essential” businesses permission to reopen, the company said on its website Saturday that it would restart the Fremont factory in keeping with a plan developed in consultation with county officials and modeled after its “smooth and healthy” operations in Shanghai.

The problem is that Alameda County hasn’t signed off on that plan. Instead, county health officials have said they’d like Tesla to hold off for a few days until they see results from the county’s first steps to ease its shelter-in-place order. That delay seems reasonable, given how volatile the pandemic has been. Nevertheless, it was too much for Musk; on Saturday, he tweeted that he was “moving Tesla’s headquarters and future programs” to Texas or Nevada “immediately,” and the company sued the county for allegedly violating its constitutional rights to due process and equal protection under the law.

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We get it, it’s hard out here for an entrepreneur! And for everybody else. Unemployment is skyrocketing and the economy is in free-fall, largely because of the restrictions that were designed to prevent COVID-19 from overwhelming the healthcare system.

But getting back to the pre-coronavirus status quo won’t be easy, given the risk that the pandemic will flare up again and force more lockdowns. That’s why the decisions on which businesses and activities resume when need to be made by people who are accountable to the public, not billionaire CEOs who threaten to pull up stakes when they don’t get their way. Or any business owners who, like Musk, consider themselves better judges of the public good than the government.

Newsom’s May 4 executive order explicitly gives local governments the authority to adopt more restrictive COVID-19 measures than the state’s orders where necessary. Alameda County’s steps need to be reasonable, and it needs to get businesses open as soon as it is safe to do so. But that’s the county’s call to make, not Musk’s.


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