People

Elon Musk's COVID-19 meltdown: 'Give people back their goddamn freedom'

The CEO had fought hard to keep Tesla's main California factory open after shelter-in-place orders were enacted.

Elon Musk

Elon Musk speaks in March during Satellite 2020 at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Brendan Smialowski / AFP

Wednesday was a good news day for Tesla. Or was, anyway, until CEO Elon Musk derailed an afternoon earnings call — held after the company reported a surprise profit — to utter a four-letter word and attack "fascist" government-mandated COVID-19 shutdowns.

"I think people are going to be very angry about this, and are very angry," Musk said. "If somebody wants to stay in their house, that's great, they should be allowed to stay in their house, and they should not be compelled to leave. But to say they cannot leave their house, and they'll be arrested if they do, this is fascist. This is not democratic, this is not freedom. Give people back their goddamn freedom."

After Musk finished, there was a long pause, and the moderator asked for the next question. A few moments later, the call's audio cut out, before coming back several minutes later. Musk was noticeably more subdued after that.

Musk's comments came in response to a question about state and local shelter-in-place orders that last month forced the automaker to temporarily close its Silicon Valley and New York factories. Bay Area government officials announced this week that they plan to keep shelter-in-place orders in effect through May, which would likely upend Tesla's plan to reopen on May 4. The company cited the target open date in an internal email obtained by Protocol, which also announced furloughs and pay cuts.

Tesla initially continued to operate its manufacturing hub in Fremont, in defiance of the lockdown orders, despite anxiety from workers who worried about scarce protective equipment and limited sick days. Musk explained on the call that Tesla only has two car factories right now — in Shanghai and in Fremont — and the Bay Area one handles most of the work. Musk called it a "serious risk" to the company that it might not be able to open the plant, and then kept going.

"So, the extension of the shelter-in-place, and frankly I would call it forcibly imprisoning people in their homes against all their constitutional rights — my opinion — and erasing people's freedoms in ways that are horrible and wrong, and not why people came to America or built this country. What the fuck? Excuse me."

He continued: "It will cause great harm not just to Tesla but to many companies, and while Tesla will weather the storm there are many small companies that will not. And everything people have worked for their whole life is getting destroyed in real time. We have many suppliers that are having a super hard time, especially the small ones, and it's causing a lot of strife to a lot of people."

The spirit of Musk's reaction isn't particularly surprising, given how hard Musk fought to keep Tesla's Fremont factory open after the shelter-in-place order was initially enacted, and after he tweeted "FREE AMERICA NOW" and "Give people their freedom back!" on Tuesday night, while cheering Texas' decision to start to reopen businesses. But Musk's words were more intense than he'd said before publicly — and from the long pauses on the earnings call, likely came as a surprise to Tesla executives as well.

Coronavirus, shelter-in-place orders and the current economic climate were on everyone's mind on Wednesday, as Qualcomm, Spotify, Microsoft, Facebook and others all reported earnings. Many CEOs preached caution on reopening offices and getting back to work.

Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, said, "While there are massive societal costs from the current shelter-in-place restrictions, I worry that reopening certain places too quickly before infection rates have been reduced to very minimal levels will almost guarantee future outbreaks and worsen longer-term health and economic outcomes."

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