Tesla sued Alameda County on Saturday in an effort to reopen its Fremont, California, car factory, a new chapter in Chief Executive Elon Musk's months-long fight over restrictions imposed to battle the coronavirus pandemic. Tesla also will move its headquarters out of California and might stop manufacturing cars at the plant altogether, he said. "I'm not messing around," Musk tweeted.
"The county is making rules that directly contradict and undermine the policy announced by the governor in his orders," Tesla said in its lawsuit against the county. "The county's orders should be declared void and without legal effect." (See the full lawsuit below.)
Tesla closed the Fremont plant in March as the state and county sought to curtail the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced plans to let some businesses reopen starting Friday, a move Musk cheered. But Alameda County, where Fremont is located, reportedly said Tesla doesn't have permission to start reopening the plant.
Alameda County health authorities have been working directly with Tesla on a plan to safely reopen the factory, the county said in a statement Saturday. "The team at Tesla has been responsive to our guidance and recommendations, and we look forward to coming to an agreement on an appropriate safety plan very soon," the county said. People and businesses have made sacrifices to save lives, and "we need to continue to work together so those sacrifices don't go to waste."
The dispute shows conflicting priorities in the effort to fight the pandemic: Restarting businesses lets people get back to work, but loosening shelter-in-place restrictions poses risks to public health. More than 78,000 people in the United States and 277,000 people globally have died from COVID-19, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Musk vents on Twitter
Musk, who's taken issue with what he's called the coronavirus "panic," isn't happy about the restrictions on his company's electric-vehicle manufacturing. Tesla has just begun producing its Model Y, a crossover based on the earlier Model 3 sedan.
"Tesla is filing a lawsuit against Alameda County immediately. The unelected & ignorant 'Interim Health Officer' of Alameda is acting contrary to the Governor, the President, our Constitutional freedoms & just plain common sense!" Musk said in one tweet.
"Frankly, this is the final straw," Musk added in another tweet. "Tesla will now move its HQ and future programs to Texas/Nevada immediately. If we even retain Fremont manufacturing activity at all, it will be [depend] on how Tesla is treated in the future. Tesla is the last carmaker left in CA."
Tesla factory could have reopened May 18
Alameda County had been working on a plan to let Tesla reopen the factory on May 18, a county official, Scott Haggerty, told The New York Times. But a Tesla executive told him Thursday that Musk was thinking of suing, and that slowed down conversations with Tesla.
The health official Musk criticized is Dr. Erica Pan, interim health officer at Alameda County's Division of Communicable Disease Control and Prevention. She went to Tufts University School of Medicine, had a residency at the University of California-San Francisco medical school and worked in pediatric infectious diseases at the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland.
Pan didn't respond to requests for comment. Tesla didn't respond to a request for comment, and Tesla's attorneys declined to comment.
Tesla detailed its plan for restarting factory operations in a 38-page back-to-work plan published Saturday on its website. "Our restart plan is the result of months of careful planning and preparation. It was modeled after the comprehensive return-to-work plan we established at our Shanghai Gigafactory, which has seen smooth and healthy operations for the last three months," Tesla said. "The County's position left us no choice but to take legal action to ensure that Tesla and its employees can get back to work."
California governor's plan to reopen businesses
The California policy for reopening businesses is a four-stage plan. "We are now in early Stage 2, where retail (curbside and delivery only), related logistics and manufacturing and essential businesses can open," the state plan's website said Friday. The plan offers a provision for counties to move faster if they meet readiness criteria.
Alameda County and six other San Francisco Bay Area counties said Thursday they're working "to find ways to reopen more businesses and activities safely."
"We appreciate that the governor recognizes that California communities are impacted differently by coronavirus and can make decisions at the local level," the counties said in the Thursday statement. "In our current environment, if a county order differs from a state order, the more restrictive order takes precedence."
Fremont Mayor Lily Mei offered Tesla some support. "As the local shelter-in-place order continues without provisions for major manufacturing activity, such as Tesla, to resume, I am growing concerned about the potential implications for our regional economy. We know many essential businesses have proven they can successfully operate using strict safety and social distancing practices," and that should be possible with major manufacturing sites, too, she said in a Saturday statement. The city will support Tesla as soon as it's "committed to a thoughtful, balanced approach ... that remains safe for our Fremont community," she said.
Tesla's current headquarters are in Palo Alto, California, across the bay from Fremont."I would be really sad and disappointed if @Tesla left @cityofpaloalto, and stand ready to help," Palo Alto Mayor Adrian Fine tweeted Saturday.
Not everybody was as sympathetic. "Elon Musk threatens to take away people's jobs unless he's allowed to risk their health. Capitalism at its worst," former Labor Secretary Robert Reich tweeted.
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