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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.
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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.
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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.
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"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."
Lauren Hepler ( @lahepler) is a former reporter for Protocol covering how people live and work in Silicon Valley. She previously covered development, energy, and tech for The New York Times, The Guardian, the LA Times, the Silicon Valley Business Journal, and others. Lauren can be reached at email@example.com (just ask for Signal), and you can share information with her anonymously via Protocol's SecureDrop. She grew up in Ohio and lives in Oakland.
Levi Sumagaysay (@levisu) is a former Silicon Valley reporter at Protocol. Previously, she was a tech reporter at The San Jose Mercury News, where she covered everything from artificial intelligence to IPOs, tech culture, news about big tech, and more. Levi has edited or written technology news since the first dot-com boom, and was for a time the writer of Good Morning Silicon Valley, one of the earliest tech blogs/newsletters.