Tesla factory inspected by police, authorities approve gradual reopen

Tesla Chief Executive Office Elon Musk speaks at his company’s factory in Fremont, California.

Noah Berger | Reuters

The Fremont Police Department inspected the Tesla factory in Fremont, California, on Wednesday, after CEO Elon Musk reopened it this weekend in defiance of public health orders.

The Covid-19 orders had restricted operations at Tesla’s facility since late March, part of a broad effort to stop a novel coronavirus outbreak in the region.

CEO Elon Musk has been publicly defiant to the orders. The Tesla chief published a tirade of tweets on Saturday, insulting Alameda County’s Interim Health Officer, Dr. Erica Pan, and threatening to move Tesla’s operations out of the state if not granted an exemption to reopen immediately. Tesla also sued the county over the Covid-19 restrictions.

Throughout the first half of the week, production employees worked shifts at the Tesla car plant. Some say they were worried about Covid-19 exposure, but risked losing unemployment income if they chose to stay home.

Now, the local health authority has given Tesla permission to resume some, but not all work, at the plant. “We are allowing Tesla to ramp up from Minimum Business Operations in order to prepare for operations next week,” county health officials told CNBC in a statement by e-mail on Wednesday night. 

The vague language resembled a line written by Tesla’s HR boss, Valerie Capers Workman, in an e-mail sent to California employees on Wednesday morning. “I’m pleased to share that local health officials announced last night that our Fremont factory can ramp up operations this week as we prepare for full production,” she said.

No penalties yet

The police completed a scheduled visit to the Fremont factory on Wednesday, May 13, a spokesperson for the police department, Geneva Bosques, told CNBC.

Law enforcement officers called hours ahead of their visit, had full access to the entire Tesla facility during the inspection, and were able to observe whether employees working there were complying with the latest health orders, Bosques said.

Now, the police reports are going back to the county health officials for review.

“Our goal since the beginning of the Shelter-in-Place has been to gain compliance through cooperation with all of the businesses in Fremont, and that remains unchanged,” Bosques said in an e-mail. “If compliance is not possible, the two agencies in conjunction would then decide if the information would be presented to the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office. The DA would review the findings and make a final determination as to whether charges would be sought.”

Both the Fremont police and Alameda County health officials said they believe Tesla has not fully resumed operations at the Fremont plant yet.

However, as CNBC previously reported, internal communications indicated that some production shifts had fully resumed, minus temp workers and with a smaller number of administrative and other employees still able to work remotely. 

Health officials, Fremont city officials and police declined to say whether Tesla could face any consequences for reopening earlier and without a site-specific plan in place. The Fremont Police Department told CNBC that it is not investigating “alleged production during the weekend.”

What Tesla had to do to get approval

On Wednesday night, an Alameda County Health Department spokesperson, Neetu Balram, revealed some of the things that were holding Tesla back from gaining approval to resume work beyond minimum basic operations in Fremont in the first place. (Minimum basic operations include some security and maintenance activities to keep inventory safe, and ensure employees can work remotely.) 

For example, the statement and e-mails from the health department said:

  • Tesla did not submit a site-specific plan for their Fremont factory to the county until May 11, though it had been asked to do so on Thursday, May 7.
  • Tesla did not previously screen workers, including checking their temperatures, before they boarded company shuttles to commute to the factory. Tesla told the county it will do so moving forward.  
  • Tesla was not requiring mandatory face covering for workers in the Fremont plant, instead, saying that face coverings were “strongly recommended” in one part of their plan, but also that face coverings were required for anyone entering the factory. Tesla has revised its language and requirements to be consistent.
  • Tesla had failed to include the Acute Communicable Disease phone number in their site-specific plans, to ensure that the Public Health Department would receive direct reports of cases and exposures. 

However, assembling cars requires a large number of people engaged in physical exertion, sharing tools and equipment and working together in close proximity, or confined spaces. Authorities did not say if this kind of work would need to be seriously restricted at the plant this week.

Because automotive manufacturing is complex, Alameda County said, it does not know how many people should be permitted on the premises at a time.

Tesla did not respond to multiple requests for information about their showdown with the county and operations this week in Fremont. They did not tell the local authorities exactly how much they would limit occupancy at the factory during the ramp-up.

Asked how the public would know if an outbreak occurred at Tesla’s massive facility, which normally employs around 10,000 people, Alameda County Public Health said it does not disclose that data. A public Covid-19 dashboard the department maintains online breaks down cases by city and zip code.

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