Most Americans are still prepared to observe lockdowns until the pandemic runs its course. Elon Musk is not one of them. The Tesla founder is publicly eager to get workers back on the job, and has repeatedly used his Twitter account to downplay the threat of deadly infection. He may now have violated the law. The Verge reported on Monday that Tesla reopened its Fremont, California, factory over the weekend, and has also recalled some furloughed workers. That could be illegal, the Verge notes, because Tesla hadn’t yet reached an agreement with Alameda County officials that would reopen the factory without jeopardizing public safety.
As is his wont, Musk later confirmed his possibly illegal behavior on Twitter with melodramatic flair:
An agreement with the Securities and Exchange Commission previously forced Musk to resign as Tesla chairman over tweets that implied, falsely, that he intended to take the company private. (Musk remains Tesla’s CEO, which grants him enormous power over the company’s doings.) The new Musk tweets reflect a similar disregard for the law, and escalate a longer-running public fight with various public officials over the Fremont factory.
Musk has for weeks characterized social-distancing orders as a form of fascistic state control, while indulging pseudoscientific skepticism about the real risk of the pandemic:
Matters soured even further on May 9, when Musk, on Twitter, threatened to move his factory out of California altogether if he didn’t get his way. An exasperated California state legislator eventually lashed out at Musk on her own Twitter account:
Tesla, meanwhile, sued Alameda County over the lockdown order. “Contrary to the Governor’s recent guidance and support from the City of Fremont, Alameda County is insisting we should not resume operations,” the company said in a statement released the same day. “This is not for lack of trying or transparency since we have met with and collaborated on our restart plans with the Alameda County Health Care Services Agency. Unfortunately, the County Public Health Officer who is making these decisions has not returned our calls or emails.”
County officials tell a somewhat different story. “We were working on a lot of policies and procedures to help operate that plant and quite frankly, I think Tesla did a pretty good job, and that’s why I had it to the point where on May 18, Tesla would have opened. I know Elon knew that. But he wanted it this week,” Scott Haggerty, an Alameda County supervisor, told the New York Times.
Workers, meanwhile, have little freedom to object. Tesla has conducted an intense union-busting campaign for years — so intense that in 2019, a judge ruled that the company violated federal labor law. Workers have also complained of dangerous conditions inside Tesla’s Fremont factory. If they go back to work now, they face increased risk of illness or death.
“We’re a money-losing company,” Musk told the Guardian in 2017, in an interview defending his labor practices. “This is not some situation where, for example, we are just greedy capitalists who decided to skimp on safety in order to have more profits and dividends and that kind of thing. It’s just a question of how much money we lose. And how do we survive? How do we not die and have everyone lose their jobs?
Musk might be tired of losing money. But he can’t tweet the coronavirus away, and by reopening his factory so early, he may well put his workers in danger.