SAN FRANCISCO — The fight between Tesla and local officials regarding the reopening of a manufacturing plant escalated Monday after chief executive Elon Musk tweeted his plans and mentioned the potential for arrests.

“Tesla is restarting production today against Alameda County rules,” Musk wrote on Twitter. “I will be on the line with everyone else. If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.”

It is one of the most prominent examples of a powerful public figure defying local health orders amid the novel coronavirus response. Tesla on Saturday filed suit against Alameda County, where its Fremont, California, factory is located, seeking an injunction against orders it stay closed. The suit alleged violations of the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment.

Neetu Balram, a spokeswoman for Alameda County, said the county hoped to work with Tesla to avoid escalation of the issue.

“We are addressing this matter using the same phased approach we use for other businesses which have violated the Order in the past, and we hope that Tesla will likewise comply without further enforcement measures,” she said in a statement, adding that the county learned Monday that the company was conducting business beyond minimum basic operations.

She said Tesla was expected to submit a plan late Monday detailing its reopening plans. “We look forward to reviewing Tesla’s plan and coming to agreement on protocol and a timeline to reopen safely,” she added.

Fremont police would be required to enforce the county’s order. The department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The city’s mayor issued a statement in support of Tesla on Saturday.

In an interview, Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty added that while dialogue continues with Musk, “I can’t stop him from breaking the health order.” He credited the county’s stance in part with the low prevalence of the illness in the county, about 2,000 cases and 71 deaths. On the possibility of arrests, Haggerty said, “I would sincerely hope not.” He added, “I don’t think that’s a good view for anybody – especially somebody that’s employing 10,000 of your constituents. I think cooler heads need to prevail on this.”

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

Two workers at Tesla’s Fremont facilities, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared for their jobs, said they were concerned about the sudden escalation of production. One worker who reported to the factory over the weekend said that people gathered in groups and that there was little enforcement of social distancing practices. Returning workers are shown an informational video about the need to abide by strict social distancing and are given masks. Meanwhile, the factory began once again to churn out Model 3 and Model Y vehicles.

“Everybody’s walking around without their mask on, talking, hanging out talking among themselves,” a worker said. “It’s scary.”

Musk’s aggressive push to reopen has gained the tacit support of conservatives aligned with the president, and drawn the ire of liberals, including a California state assemblywoman who punctuated her displeasure with an expletive over the weekend.

Eric Trump, the president’s son, liked Musk’s tweet Monday.

As coronavirus shutdowns have dragged on, some states have moved more quickly to reopen, and protesters have demanded an end to the shutdown orders. In Silicon Valley, which has had some of the most restrictive orders in place for the longest time, a handful of tech elites have echoed and promoted Musk’s concerns.

California loosened restrictions this month, allowing some commerce and manufacturing to resume, but stricter county orders supersede the state rules.

The company said in a blog post Saturday that it planned to reopen, and laid out an argument for how it could safely do so. Earlier that day, Musk tweeted that he was considering relocating Tesla’s Palo Alto headquarters, located in another California county, to Texas or Nevada, and lambasted Alameda County’s response.

Musk has repeatedly played down the seriousness of the coronavirus, at one point calling the panic “dumb.” On the company’s earnings call late last month he called the quarantine measures “fascist” and used expletives to describe what he saw as “forcibly imprisoning” people in their homes against their constitutional rights.

Musk’s erratic behavior continued this month when he tweeted that Tesla’s stock price was “too high,” sending shares plummeting during trading on May 1. Since then he has consistently complained of the stay-home orders, saying Tesla has been unfairly singled out among large automakers and railing against California officials.

He took aim at the county’s interim public health officer, Erica Pan, whom he derided over the weekend as “an unelected county official”; he said she “illegally” overrode the state orders – despite county officials’ ability to supersede them.

Alameda County’s Haggerty said: “She’s not incompetent. That I don’t like. Elon Musk is a very smart man, very focused. I just wish that he wouldn’t disparage some of my staff.”

Musk also tried to keep the factory open at the beginning of the crisis in mid-March, when the Bay Area became the first major region to order residents to stay home. The county at the time told Tesla that it did not count as an essential business.

Musk had pushed for Tesla to be able to staff a stamping plant to produce fenders, doors and other car parts before a May 18 reopening being negotiated by the county.

“That would ensure there was enough parts when everybody came back to work on the 18th,” he said, but the health department’s indicators did not yet say it was safe to do so.

Conditions have affected morale at the plant, a employee who works there said.

“We’re extremely frustrated, angry, scared, that Elon is putting his cars before his workers,” one of them said. “He’s putting those cars before his employees and their well-being.”


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