Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, speaks during the Satellite 2020 at the Washington Convention Center on March 9 2020. Picture: AFP/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI
Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, speaks during the Satellite 2020 at the Washington Convention Center on March 9 2020. Picture: AFP/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI

San Francisco — Tesla CEO Elon Musk restarted production at the company’s only US car plant, flouting county officials who ordered it to stay closed, and openly acknowledging he was risking arrest for himself and his employees.

“I will be on the line with everyone else,” Musk in a tweet Monday. “If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.”

After fending off a potentially costly defamation lawsuit and emerging with mild consequences from a court battle with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2019, Musk, 48, seems emboldened to again try his luck with the law.

The lead lawyer on Tesla’s lawsuit on Saturday against California’s Alameda County over its reopening restrictions helped Musk beat the case brought by a cave diver he called a paedophile in 2018.

This time about, Musk is doing battle over measures to contain a virus that he downplayed starting in January. After claiming Covid-19 was not all that viral a disease, then calling panic about it “dumb” in March, he has also theorised that fatality rates are overstated, promoted the antimalarial drugs dubiously embraced by US President Donald Trump and wrongly predicted that new cases would be close to zero by the end of April.

‘Sad day’

Musk has been furious for weeks about restrictions that county officials placed on Tesla operations as part of their effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. On Saturday, he threatened to pull the company’s headquarters out of California and move them along with future projects to Nevada or Texas. Tesla has roughly 20,000 employees in the San Francisco Bay area, about half of which are in Fremont.

California governor Gavin Newsom sought to ease tensions earlier on Monday, saying that he believed Tesla would be able to begin operations as soon as next week.

“It would be a sad day if the Fremont police walked into Tesla and arrested Elon Musk,” said Scott Haggerty, the county supervisor for the district in Alameda where Tesla’s Fremont plant is located. “The tweets that go back and forth are unfortunate, and we need to get to the table, talk our way through this and get people back to work in a safe manner.”

The Musk-vs-California battle has come to represent the tense debate that’s playing out in states and counties across America over how fast businesses should be allowed to reopen. To Musk supporters, he’s a hero fighting back against unnecessary government intervention. To his detractors, he’s a reckless and impulsive leader who’s encouraging dangerous behaviour that could set back efforts to quell the pandemic.

“I don’t think Musk can just fly in the face of the local health order, which is more restrictive than the state’s,” said Haggerty, who has represented the region for 23 years.

Conflicting e-mail

Tesla told production workers before Musk’s tweet that it was getting back to work at the Fremont factory. Valerie Capers Workman, Tesla’s head of North American human resources, e-mailed production staff to notify them that their furlough ended on Sunday.

Those who are not comfortable returning to work can stay home on unpaid leave but may no longer be eligible for jobless benefits, she said.

The e-mail conflicted with remarks that Newsom made during the governor’s daily press briefing, which took place before Musk’s tweet. When asked about Tesla reopening its Fremont plant regardless of Alameda’s order, Newsom said he was unaware.

“My understanding is they have had some very constructive conversations,” Newsom said. “My belief and hope and expectation is as early as next week, they will be able to resume.”

Tesla sued the county over the weekend after it told the company it did not meet criteria to reopen. Newsom, who allowed manufacturing in parts of the state to restart May 8, said on Monday that the county was allowed to enforce stricter rules about reopening. The health officers for Alameda and six other San Francisco Bay area counties and cities decided late in April to extend their restrictions on businesses through the end of May.

‘Green light’

After Musk’s tweet, Alameda county health officials issued a statement saying Tesla’s Fremont plant was operating beyond what was allowed and that it hoped the company would “comply without further enforcement measures”.

The county has been in an ongoing dialogue over employee health-screening procedures and said it will continue to review Tesla’s plans.

Capers Workman told employees that the state had “given the green light for manufacturing to resume”.

Musk tweeted over the weekend that Alameda’s refusal to let Tesla reopen the Fremont factory was “the final straw” and that he would immediately move Tesla’s headquarters to Nevada or Texas.

Newsom said Monday the state has a strong relationship with Tesla, calling it “a company that this state has substantively supported for now many, many years”. Musk then thanked the governor in a tweet.

For all his bluster, Musk’s fortune has surged along with Tesla’s shares in 2020. His personal wealth has grown by $12.6bn in 2020 to more than $40bn, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

“We have a culture in our state where these huge corporations run by billionaires ‘move fast and break things’,” Lorena Gonzalez, a California legislator, tweeted Monday. “Rules. Orders. Laws. People. All without consequence.”