Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk moved to shut down production at his factories in California and New York State last week, after several days of defying local public health orders in Alameda County and several tweets dismissing the seriousness of a mounting global coronavirus pandemic.
“The carmaker had caused uproar by continuing production even after Alameda County officials issued a shelter-at-home order that applied to businesses and individuals,” the New York Times reported March 19, eight days after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic. “Tesla did not qualify as an ‘essential business’, which would have exempted it from the order. As recently as Wednesday, the company was telling employees they could stay home if they were worried about the coronavirus outbreak, but would have to use their time off if they wanted to be paid.”
That changed last week, after days of meetings between Tesla and local, state, and federal officials, the company said in a statement on Thursday. “Despite taking all known health precautions, continued operations in certain locations has caused challenges for our employees, their families, and our suppliers.” That was after the Fremont, California police department said it planned to meet with Tesla management “to discuss cooperation for compliance” with the shelter-at-home order, which had taken effect two days previously.
Even then, the Times said Tesla gave itself until this past Monday for an “orderly shutdown” at its Fremont plant. Its Buffalo factory also suspended production, but its Reno, Nevada gigafactory was slated to remain open. Its Shanghai gigafactory shut down while the virus ravaged China, but has since reopened.
“Tesla did not respond to requests for comment but the company’s chief executive, Elon Musk, has repeatedly played down the threat of the coronavirus outbreak, which has brought the world economy to its knees, even as he said the company stood ready to produce ventilators for hospitals,” the Times wrote. “On Twitter, he has described panic over the virus as ‘dumb’, and on Monday night he emailed Tesla employees inviting them to stay home if they felt ill or uncomfortable, though he said he would still head to work.”
Last week, Musk reportedly emailed workers with the message that the “risk of death from C19 is vastly less than the risk of death from driving your car home.” On Thursday, he tweeted that “based on current trends,” the U.S. would see a virtual end to new coronavirus cases by the end of April, much earlier than, y’know, actual public health doctors are predicting.
Musk initially said his Tesla and SpaceX factories could produce ventilators for critical COVID-19 patients “if there is a shortage”, but later added that it might take time to retool production lines. “Tesla makes cars with sophisticated HVAC systems,” he tweeted. “SpaceX makes spacecraft with life support systems. Ventilators are not difficult, but cannot be produced instantly.” Yesterday, he said he had acquired more than 1,200 surplus ventilators from China for shipment to the U.S.
The Times recounted workers’ concerns about Tesla’s “slow and disappointing response” to the coronavirus outbreak, with one employee—who’d been out all week with flu-like symptoms—urging Musk to “tell us your plan. We have to defend our families.” The paper noted that Tesla just recently begin producing its new Model Y sport utility vehicle, the product that it hopes will be its key to consistent profitability.
“The company’s shares fell nearly 7T in extended trading on Thursday after it said it was suspending production in Fremont,” the Times said.