May 13, 2020 11:30 AM, EDT

Tesla Operations Can Resume in California if Conditions Are Met

People enter the Tesla assembly plant in Fremont, Calif., on May 11. People enter the Tesla assembly plant in Fremont, Calif., on May 11. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News)

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Alameda County officials said May 12 they have agreed to allow Tesla to reopen as early as next week if the auto manufacturer agrees to certain safety conditions.

The decision came after the county told Tesla earlier in the day to stop manufacturing at its Fremont plant, the strongest step local government has taken to check the electric car maker’s defiance of health orders.

The Chronicle previously reported that some Tesla production lines had begun running over the weekend. Workers began returning to the plant as early as last week. Alameda County’s shelter-in-place orders, enforced since mid-March, do not allow for manufacturing, though Tesla initially defied them before shutting down its lines and furloughing employees in late March.

In a letter early May 12, Colleen Chawla, director of the county’s Health Care Services Agency, reiterated that the company can perform only basic functions at the plant until the county and Tesla agreed on a plan to reopen the factory in line with state and local rules. County and Tesla officials met May 12, and the Sheriff’s Office said in a tweet that county officials agreed that if certain criteria are met, the company can possibly open next week.

“We reviewed the plan and held productive discussions today with Tesla’s representatives about their safety and prevention plans, including some additional safety recommendations,” the tweet said. “If Tesla’s Prevention and Control Plan includes these updates, and the public health indicators remain stable or improve, we have agreed that Tesla can begin to augment their Minimum Business Operations this week in preparation for possible reopening as soon as next week.”

The county did not comment on whether Tesla agreed to halt manufacturing until the updates are in place, and Tesla did not respond to the Chronicle’s request for comment.

Earlier, Chawla wrote to Laurie Shelby, vice president of environmental, health and safety at Tesla, saying that the auto manufacturer had to “maintain no more than Minimum Basic Operations” until safety measures were in place.

A statement tweeted May 11 by the Sheriff’s Office said the public-safety agency informed Tesla it could perform only basic functions. It stopped short of ordering the plant to close. Under Alameda County’s shelter-in-place orders, nonessential businesses can perform some limited functions, such as processing payroll and maintaining inventory.

“We are addressing this matter using the same phased approach we use for other businesses which have violated the order in the past, and we hope that Tesla will likewise comply without further enforcement measures,” the agency said.

CEO Elon Musk’s announcement of the reopening of the plant on Twitter underscored his disinterest in following a bureaucratic process for reopening. Musk has decried restrictions on business operations to combat the spread of the coronavirus and said he would move the company’s headquarters from Palo Alto to another state in response to Alameda County’s requests that Tesla comply with the order.

Musk sent employees an email early May 12 congratulating them on the reopening.

“An honest day’s work spent building products or providing services of use to others is extremely honorable,” Musk wrote in the email, which was obtained by the Chronicle. “I have vastly more respect for someone who takes pride in doing a good job, whatever the profession, than some rich or famous person who does nothing useful.”

Tesla vehicles are parked at the company's assembly plant in Fremont, Calif., on May 11.

Tesla vehicles are parked at the company's assembly plant in Fremont, Calif., on May 11. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News)

Tesla released a “Return to Work Playbook” over the weekend that outlines increased safety measures at the plant, such as handing out masks and temperature scanning.

Tesla sued the county in federal court over the weekend, demanding the company be allowed to operate the Fremont plant under state guidance that, its lawyers argued, supersedes Alameda County’s restrictions.

State rules around some manufacturing have been loosened, but local authorities are free to enforce stricter measures to curb the virus, something Gov. Gavin Newsom repeated during a news conference May 11. Newsom also said the developing agreement between the county and Tesla had been for the plant to reopen next week. It was not clear why Musk was unsatisfied with the prospect of even a short delay in the plant’s reopening.

County officials also were envisioning allowing the plant to reopen soon before Musk made his abrupt move.

Earlier May 12, Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, whose district includes Tesla’s Fremont plant, said he was “confident” that health officials and Tesla would have reached a plan to have the plant reopen with a May 18 target date, according to Shawn Wilson, his chief of staff.

Tesla sent most of its more than 10,000 employees at the Fremont plant home in late March after initially remaining open for nearly a week after the shelter-in-place orders took effect.

Company executives have said in emails previously obtained by the Chronicle that workers who are concerned about contracting the disease may remain at home without being penalized.

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