People

Sheriff: Tesla must close its plant. Workers: It's business as usual inside.

As Tesla's factory continued to operate in defiance of Alameda County's orders, Elon Musk and officials appeared locked in a game of chicken.

The Tesla factory

The worker parking lots at Tesla's Fremont factory were full on Tuesday, despite county orders that all nonessential businesses cut back operations.

Photo: Lauren Hepler/Protocol

Updated on Wednesday, March 18, at 6:22 p.m. PDT: Alameda County officials said Wednesday that Tesla was reducing the active workforce at its Fremont factory, though questions remained, such as whether Tesla was still making cars or if the county considered it an essential business. More details in our rolling update.

As the rest of the Bay Area was hunkered down under an order to shelter in place on Tuesday afternoon, Tesla's hulking Silicon Valley factory, which employs 15,000 people, was bustling with workers.

When the afternoon line change hit, hundreds of men and women in all-black uniforms streamed out past a few idling food trucks. Some told Protocol there were few if any extra precautions being taken inside the factory. Many boarded double-decker charter buses — which, a worker said, have been limited to 50% capacity to separate riders, requiring more busses be added to the fleet — bound for rural bedroom communities 70 miles away. New workers, some dropped off by a shuttle driver wearing a face mask, arrived for their shifts.

But nearby at the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, officials were debating if and how to shut the factory down.


Get what matters in tech, in your inbox every morning. Sign up for Source Code.


On Monday night, CEO Elon Musk defied an order by the county and five surrounding local governments for residents to shelter in place and nonessential businesses to cease operating through April 7 to slow the spread of COVID-19. According to the orders, auto manufacturing does not fall into the category of essential businesses like grocery stores, gas stations and health care providers. But Musk and Tesla executives saw it differently, reportedly telling employees via emails that Tesla is critical to transportation and energy systems, so though workers could stay home if they wanted, the factory would remain open.

"We're letting them know, they're not an essential business," Alameda County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Ray Kelly told Protocol on Tuesday evening.

Local newspapers were reporting that Alameda County was shutting the factory down, but Kelly told Protocol there were no plans for the sheriff's office, which is granted enforcement powers by the county order, to do so by force. "Not going there tonight on that one," he said. "We're not gonna go down there."

The shelter-in-place orders are binding, punishable with a misdemeanor, but law enforcement officials in multiple counties have said they are hoping for voluntary compliance. By keeping the Tesla factory operating, Musk appears to be testing the limits of the county's idealism. Musk and local government officials are now locked in a game of chicken, with the rest of Silicon Valley waiting to see who will act first.

"They must comply with the order," Kelly reiterated. Tesla can only maintain minimum basic operations, per the county order, such as processing payroll and activities necessary to maintain the value of their business. "Unless they can get some type of exemption, that's the order," he said.

The question of what amounts to minimum basic activities is not totally clear cut, but there are obvious financial benefits to staying open. "This is a critical time for Tesla because of the Model Y launch," said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book. "That car probably has more potential in terms of anything Tesla has ever launched."

But he added that businesses should be doing their part and following public health guidelines: "Tesla isn't alone in being a car company with a critical launch and facing delays because of coronavirus," he said.

It also wasn't alone in facing criticism about telling factory workers to stay on the job during a pandemic. The United Auto Workers, which previously tried to organize workers at the Tesla factory, on Tuesday called for other U.S. automakers to shutter their plants.

In Fremont on Tuesday afternoon, trucks filtered in and out of Tesla's delivery bays, and 18-wheelers loaded with new Model 3s peeled out of parking lots filled with rows and rows of cars wrapped in white plastic.

Workers wore black cargo pants, steel-toed boots and clear plastic protective glasses. A few workers leaving the factory wore masks over their noses and mouths — the only indication other than unusually light traffic that the rest of the county is on lockdown.

"It's been confusing, mostly. No straight answers," said one worker who asked not to be identified since he was not authorized to speak to the press. "They're keeping us on the hook day by day."

The factory was buzzing with rumors on Tuesday about why the factory was allowed to stay open, the worker said. Many guessed the company's recent record share price approaching $1,000 had something to do with it. (The price has fallen more than 50% in the past month.)

"It's the business possibility," he said. "And I want to say that's probably why the county is helping us stay open."

There was no indication the county was helping Tesla stay open, aside from not yet forcibly requiring the company to comply with the shelter-in-place order. Tesla did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Officials also did not answer questions about the factory at the governor's office, the Alameda County Public Health Department or the city of Fremont.

Health experts said the defiance could prove costly in California, where there have been 11 deaths and 740 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Some local hospitals are turning away patients requesting tests.

"I know Elon Musk has been a bit of a skeptic about the pandemic, but it's not a good look," said Carl Bergstrom, an infectious disease biologist at the University of Washington. "Ignoring shutdown orders is irresponsible and bad for society. I don't care if you're making cars that don't use gasoline."

Musk, who is known for brashly wading into public crises like a high-profile Thai cave rescue mission in 2018, has downplayed the threat of the virus. Last week, he called the panic "dumb" on Twitter. In an email to factory staff on Monday night, he offered his own pandemic projections, the Los Angeles Times reported.

"My frank opinion is that the harm from the coronavirus panic far exceeds that of the virus itself," Musk reportedly wrote. He guessed that COVID-19 cases "will not exceed 0.1% of the population."

"I will personally be at work, but that's just me," Musk wrote, but added, "I'd rather you were at home and not stressed, than at work and worried."

The next day, multiple workers told Protocol it wasn't an easy choice to come to work after the shelter-in-place orders were issued. Some took solace in masks they brought in or were able to buy in vending machines inside the factory. Others had heard the masks don't work or that doctors need them more. At least, they said, work stations are generally at least a few feet apart. They went to work because paid sick days are only available to some full-time workers, and Tesla — like many other large tech companies and manufacturers — employs a web of contractors, temps and full-time employees.

"I wouldn't get paid if I stayed home," one worker at the plant said on Tuesday. "With some full-time people, it depends if you get paid."

Other workers employed by Tesla contractors, such as the bus drivers who shuttle workers hours to and from work each day, also told Protocol that they are still driving normal routes. Thousands of factory workers commute from California's agro-industrial Central Valley, a region with average incomes less than half of Silicon Valley's affluent counties, and with more limited health infrastructure in rural areas.

Related:

Tesla was an outlier in sending its employees to work after the orders to curtail business activities. At Google and Facebook, where contractors had been working up until Monday morning as full-time employees logged in from home, emails sent late Monday told personnel they would be paid to work remotely.

And near the Tesla factory, Thermo Fisher Scientific's much smaller manufacturing operations remained in full swing, with parking lots full of workers' vehicles; however, because Thermo Fisher makes medical supplies, including crucial and necessary COVID-19 tests, it was operating in compliance with the county order.

Manufacturing cars was not in the same category, noted Michelle Mello, professor of medicine at Stanford's Center for Health Policy, Primary Care and Outcomes Research. She added that keeping Tesla's factory open posed a real risk for the larger community. "The broader the exceptions from the general order to shelter at home, the higher the prospects for community spread," she said.

Tesla's defiance of the order may not have been welcome news to the county or health experts, but market experts liked it. CFRA analyst Garrett Nelson raised his Tesla rating on Tuesday, encouraged by Musk's own statement that he would keep working through the pandemic.


Get in touch with us: Share information securely with Protocol via encrypted Signal or WhatsApp message, at 415-214-4715 or through our anonymous SecureDrop.


"You can kind of read through what's expected of workers if their boss is going to be there," Nelson said.

On the ground in Fremont, though Tesla's factory was bustling, life outside its campus had slowed to a trickle. Across the street at Taqueria Las Vegas, the red neon "open" sign was still on, but no customers were inside. A few workers had stopped in for lunch, a cashier said, but the business was one of many in the shadow of the factory staring down an uncertain future.

"This week, to-go only," the cashier said. "Next week, I don't know."

Climate

The West’s drought could bring about a data center reckoning

When it comes to water use, data centers are the tech industry’s secret water hogs — and they could soon come under increased scrutiny.

Lake Mead, North America's largest artificial reservoir, has dropped to about 1,052 feet above sea level, the lowest it's been since being filled in 1937.

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The West is parched, and getting more so by the day. Lake Mead — the country’s largest reservoir — is nearing “dead pool” levels, meaning it may soon be too low to flow downstream. The entirety of the Four Corners plus California is mired in megadrought.

Amid this desiccation, hundreds of the country’s data centers use vast amounts of water to hum along. Dozens cluster around major metro centers, including those with mandatory or voluntary water restrictions in place to curtail residential and agricultural use.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

Every day, millions of us press the “order” button on our favorite coffee store's mobile application: Our chosen brew will be on the counter when we arrive. It’s a personalized, seamless experience that we have all come to expect. What we don’t know is what’s happening behind the scenes. The mobile application is sourcing data from a database that stores information about each customer and what their favorite coffee drinks are. It is also leveraging event-streaming data in real time to ensure the ingredients for your personal coffee are in supply at your local store.

Applications like this power our daily lives, and if they can’t access massive amounts of data stored in a database as well as stream data “in motion” instantaneously, you — and millions of customers — won’t have these in-the-moment experiences.

Keep Reading Show less
Jennifer Goforth Gregory
Jennifer Goforth Gregory has worked in the B2B technology industry for over 20 years. As a freelance writer she writes for top technology brands, including IBM, HPE, Adobe, AT&T, Verizon, Epson, Oracle, Intel and Square. She specializes in a wide range of technology, such as AI, IoT, cloud, cybersecurity, and CX. Jennifer also wrote a bestselling book The Freelance Content Marketing Writer to help other writers launch a high earning freelance business.
Workplace

Indeed is hiring 4,000 workers despite industry layoffs

Indeed’s new CPO, Priscilla Koranteng, spoke to Protocol about her first 100 days in the role and the changing nature of HR.

"[Y]ou are serving the people. And everything that's happening around us in the world is … impacting their professional lives."

Image: Protocol

Priscilla Koranteng's plans are ambitious. Koranteng, who was appointed chief people officer of Indeed in June, has already enhanced the company’s abortion travel policies and reinforced its goal to hire 4,000 people in 2022.

She’s joined the HR tech company in a time when many other tech companies are enacting layoffs and cutbacks, but said she sees this precarious time as an opportunity for growth companies to really get ahead. Koranteng, who comes from an HR and diversity VP role at Kellogg, is working on embedding her hybrid set of expertise in her new role at Indeed.

Keep Reading Show less
Amber Burton

Amber Burton (@amberbburton) is a reporter at Protocol. Previously, she covered personal finance and diversity in business at The Wall Street Journal. She earned an M.S. in Strategic Communications from Columbia University and B.A. in English and Journalism from Wake Forest University. She lives in North Carolina.

Climate

New Jersey could become an ocean energy hub

A first-in-the-nation bill would support wave and tidal energy as a way to meet the Garden State's climate goals.

Technological challenges mean wave and tidal power remain generally more expensive than their other renewable counterparts. But government support could help spur more innovation that brings down cost.

Photo: Jeremy Bishop via Unsplash

Move over, solar and wind. There’s a new kid on the renewable energy block: waves and tides.

Harnessing the ocean’s power is still in its early stages, but the industry is poised for a big legislative boost, with the potential for real investment down the line.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

Entertainment

Watch 'Stranger Things,' play Neon White and more weekend recs

Don’t know what to do this weekend? We’ve got you covered.

Here are our picks for your long weekend.

Image: Annapurna Interactive; Wizard of the Coast; Netflix

Kick off your long weekend with an extra-long two-part “Stranger Things” finale; a deep dive into the deckbuilding games like Magic: The Gathering; and Neon White, which mashes up several genres, including a dating sim.

Keep Reading Show less
Nick Statt

Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.

Latest Stories
Bulletins