Tesla CEO Elon Musk has confirmed the company has restarted its California factory, a move that defied local government orders involving measures to contain coronavirus.
In a tweet, Musk practically dared authorities to arrest him, writing that he would be on the assembly line and if anyone is taken into custody, it should be him.
“Also, all other auto companies in US are approved to resume,” he said in a reply to another tweet.
“Only Tesla has been singled out. This is super messed up!”
State law allows a fine of up to $1000 ($A1554) a day or up to 90 days in jail for operating in violation of health orders.
The plant in Fremont, a city of more than 230,000 people south of San Francisco, had been closed since March 23.
Early on Monday, the car park was nearly full at the factory, which employs 10,000 workers, and trucks were seen leaving loaded with vehicles that may have been produced before the shutdown.
The restart defied orders from the Alameda County Public Health Department, which has deemed the factory a non-essential business that can’t open under virus restrictions.
The department on Monday said it warned the company was operating in violation of the county health order, and hoped Tesla would “comply without further enforcement measures” until the county approves a site-specific plan required by the state.
The department said it expected Tesla to submit such a plan by 5pm Monday local time.
“We look forward to reviewing Tesla’s plan and coming to agreement on protocol and a timeline to reopen safely,” the statement read.
No agency appeared ready to enforce the order against Tesla.
County Sheriff Sergeant Ray Kelly said any enforcement would come from Fremont police.
Fremont police spokeswoman Geneva Bosques said officers would take action at the direction of the county health officer.
County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, who represents Fremont, said he’s been working on the issue for weeks trying to find a way for Tesla to reopen in a way that satisfies the health officer.
He said officials were moving towards allowing Tesla to restart on May 18, but he suspects Musk wanted to restart stamping operations to make body parts needed to resume assembling electric vehicles.
Tesla planned to maintain worker safety, including the wearing of gloves and masks and social distancing.
Mr Haggerty said the company initially pushed back on checking employee temperatures before boarding a company bus to get to work.
But he said Tesla relented and agreed to check workers.
“I’m seeing emails going back and forth between the plant and our public health department so I’m encouraged by that, and that’s what I mean by cooler heads,” he said.
“There’s a lot of people whose lives depend on that plant opening safely.”
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The restart came two days after Tesla sued the county health department seeking to overturn its order, and Musk threatened to move Tesla’s manufacturing operations and headquarters from the state.
Tesla contends in the lawsuit that Alameda County can’t be more restrictive than orders from California Governor Gavin Newsom.
The lawsuit says the governor’s coronavirus restrictions refer to federal guidelines classifying vehicle manufacturing as essential businesses that are allowed to continue operating.
“Frankly, this is the final straw,” Musk wrote in a now-deleted Saturday tweet.
“Tesla will now move its HQ and future programs to Texas/Nevada immediately.”
He wrote that whether the company keeps any manufacturing in Fremont depends on how Tesla is treated in the future. Newsom professed not to know if Tesla had reopened.
“Not aware (of) the details of that,” he said.
“I have great expectations that we can work through at the county levels,” the governor said about conflicts involving the Fremont plant.
He said county health directors are in charge of restrictions and the timing of any resumption of manufacturing.
Alameda County was among six San Francisco Bay Area counties that were the first in the nation to impose stay-at-home orders in mid-March.
The order in the Bay Area has been extended until the end of the month, but the counties plan to allow some limited business and manufacturing starting May 18, the same day Detroit automakers plan to reopen auto assembly plants.
The Governor has repeatedly said that counties can impose restrictions that are more stringent than state orders.
Early in the coronavirus crisis, he praised Musk as the “perfect example” of the private sector assisting the state in the pandemic.
His comments came after Musk pledged to provide more than 1000 ventilators to California hospitals, a fact Mr Newsom repeated often and called a “heroic effort”.
But whether Musk made good on the promise remains in dispute.
Several weeks after Mr Newsom was touting the ventilators, the state said it hadn’t heard of any being delivered.
Musk responded, demanding on Twitter that Mr Newsom correct the record and sharing tweets and screenshots from hospitals and Los Angeles County thanking him for sending supplies.
Musk has been talking about the stay-home order since the company’s April 29 first-quarter earnings were released.
He called the restrictions fascist and urged governments to stop taking people’s freedom.
Coronavirus has killed more than 81,000 people in the US, with the death toll rising. Currently there have been 1.38 million confirmed cases in the country.
Despite Musk’s threat, it would be costly and difficult to quickly shift production from Fremont to Texas or Nevada.
The Fremont facility is Tesla’s only US vehicle assembly plant, and the company would lose critical production if it shut down the plant to move equipment.
Musk is planning another US factory to increase output, possibly in Texas, and could move production once that plant is up and running.