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Musk Becomes Champion for Businesses Defying Shutdown Orders

But his actions might cost him in the long run.

Vehicles are seen parked at the Tesla car plant.
Vehicles are seen parked at the Tesla car plant.
Associated Press

At the Fit4All Gym in Lebanon, Illinois, owner David Tate considers Elon Musk a huge ally in the fight against government coronavirus orders that Tate says are driving him into the poorhouse.

Tate reopened his 250-member gym in defiance of state orders on Monday, the same day Musk restarted his huge San Francisco Bay Area factory despite being told not to by the county Health Department.

Like other business owners hit hard by coronavirus shutdown orders, Tate says Musk is a leader in the growing movement to reopen in the face of government orders, giving smaller businesses a boost and letting them know they’re not in the fight alone.

“We needed somebody with a voice as big as his to step up and say what he did,” Tate said.

Musk, with 34 million Twitter followers, has openly defied an order from the Alameda County Health Department to conduct only minimum operations at the plant in Fremont, California, that normally employs 10,000 people. On Twitter he has made derisive comments about the county’s top health official. He has called the stay-home restrictions “fascist” and said they rob people of freedom.

While Musk is getting support on social media from his devoted followers and even President Donald Trump, his actions might cost him in the long run. Many who buy his expensive electric vehicles do so because they tilt to the left politically and want to make a statement about protecting the environment. And they have criticized Musk in the past when he's allied too closely with Trump.

For instance, early in Trump’s term, Musk got pushback for serving on two of the president's business advisory councils. He stepped down after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord.

Still, Musk is admired by business owners who think the government shouldn’t be telling them to stay closed if they’re willing to take precautions to reopen safely. That includes Mike Jellison, who reopened his gym in Arlington, Washington, on Monday, even though it violated state restrictions.

“I have been reading what he has been saying on Twitter, and it sounds like he is taking all the right precautions,” Jellison said of Musk.

Public health experts say shutting down businesses and orders that keep people at home have worked in limiting the virus' spread and helping to keep many hospital systems from being overwhelmed. The coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but it has claimed more than 80,000 lives in the U.S. alone.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warned bluntly Tuesday of suffering, death and deeper economic damage if state and local officials lift stay-at-home orders too quickly.

“My concern is we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks,” he told senators at a hearing. “The consequences could be really serious.”

In fact, he said opening too soon would cause “some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery.”

To make the decision even more difficult, there isn't a one-size-fits all approach, said George Rutherford, an epidemiology professor at the University of California, San Francisco. “It’s like on one of those calculus problems where you have two equations with three unknowns,” he said.

Although he doesn’t condone what Musk is doing, Rutherford conceded it’s possible that Tesla’s factory could restart without endangering workers. “You would have to see the layout of the plant to really know,” he said. “If this were a meat processing plant, you would say no way they should be going to work. It’s not as clear here.”

Musk's fans, who admire how he’s shaken up the auto business and launched rockets into space, will love how he resisted authorities, said Erik Gordon, a business and law professor at the University of Michigan. Electric car buyers who aren’t necessarily Musk disciples, however, won’t have the same opinion.

“They are more in favor of safety and more in favor of protecting workers,” Gordon said. “The crowd that sees ultra-wealthy techno-elite CEOs as a menace to society will hate it.”

Within California, where Tesla was born, Musk has had a long history and in some ways personifies the Silicon Valley ethos of innovation, starting with electric car designs and later moving into building rocket ships with his company SpaceX. When he opened the Fremont plant in 2010 at a recently shuttered factory that was jointly run by General Motors and Toyota, Musk was embraced with open arms by another California legend, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The relationship has been fruitful for Tesla, netting Musk hundreds of millions in subsidies, including nine years of sales tax exemptions totaling nearly $250 million.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, a former San Francisco mayor, said Monday he has a long relationship with Musk, noting that the state has “substantively supported” Tesla for many years. He anticipated the relationship would continue.

But Tesla’s reopening flies in the face of Newsom’s statewide order, which allows counties to begin reopening if they meet benchmarks including testing capacity, hospitalizations and contact tracing. Alameda County is behind on several, including completing fewer than 30 tests per day per 100,000 people; Newsom’s order requires counties to hit 200 tests per day.

There are more than 2,100 cases in Alameda County and 74 deaths, putting the county’s infection rate at nearly 130 cases per 100,000 population — lower than California’s average, but higher than several other Bay Area counties.

Tesla's factory reopened Monday with Musk practically daring local authorities to arrest him. The plant apparently continued operations on Tuesday. The company met a Monday deadline to submit a site-specific plan to protect worker safety, which Alameda County's Public Health Department is reviewing, said county spokeswoman Neetu Balram.

The department has deemed the factory a nonessential business that can’t fully open under virus restrictions. The Fremont plant had been closed since March 23.

Alameda County was among six Bay Area counties that were the first in the nation to impose stay-at-home orders in mid-March. Newsom has repeatedly said counties can impose restrictions that are more stringent than state orders.

The Bay Area order, which Tesla has sued to overturn, has been extended until the end of the month. But counties plan to allow some limited business and manufacturing starting May 18, the same day Detroit automakers plan to reopen auto assembly plants. Some auto parts plants were to restart production this week.

The Detroit automakers' 150,000 U.S. workers are represented by the United Auto Workers union, which has sought added safety precautions. Tesla's workers do not have a union.

Tesla says it has a plan to maintain worker safety, including the wearing of gloves and masks, barriers between workers and maintaining social distancing. It also will do temperature checks at selected sites, the plan said.

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