After Predicting “Close to Zero New Cases” by the End of April, Elon Musk Defies Public Health Orders and Reopens Tesla Factory

Luke Darby

Elon Musk wants his Tesla factory up and running again, and claims he's willing to go to prison to do so. On Monday, he tweeted that he was reopening the Tesla car factory in California, regardless of whether or not he's violating public health orders. He wrote, "Tesla is restarting production today against Alameda County rules. I will be on the line with everyone else. If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me."

The main conflict here is between Musk and Alameda County itself—California governor Gavin Newsom is allowing some manufacturers to start reopening in the state, but the county hasn't yet signed off on Tesla over fears that workers could be exposed to coronavirus. Speaking to the New York Times this past weekend, Alameda County supervisor Scott Haggerty said that they were close to reaching an agreement with Tesla when Musk went on a Twitter tirade, insulting individual officials and threatening to move the factory to Texas. The company also sent a letter to employees, telling them they risked unemployment benefits by not working: “If you do not feel comfortable coming into work, you can stay home and will be on unpaid leave. Choosing not to report to work may eliminate or reduce your eligibility for unemployment depending on your state’s unemployment agency.”

Trying to get Musk's attention on Twitter, officials in Georgia, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah all jumped at the chance to snag Tesla's business, like Dallas mayor Eric Johnson who tweeted, "We think big here and we never take our eye off the future, even during a pandemic." Meanwhile, California state assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego just responded with "Fuck Elon Musk." For now, it seems that Musk would rather just ignore California's public health mandates rather than actually move the factory.

Musk has emerged as something of a coronavirus crank, tweeting the day after reopening his factory at notorious coronavirus skeptic Alex Berenson, "it appears that what he is saying is untrue" about a doctor saying that there are not enough tests for symptomatic COVID patients. Since the pandemic's emergence in the U.S., he's consistently downplayed it, tweeting the "coronavirus panic is dumb" on March 6. He explained himself, saying, "Virality of C19 is overstated due to conflating diagnosis date with contraction date & over-extrapolating exponential growth, which is never what happens in reality," adding, "Fatality rate also greatly overstated." A few days later, he became the first high-profile figure to promote the then little-heard-of hydroxychloroquine, a drug that the Trump administration and Fox News later clamped onto as a possible miracle cure. He added, "danger of panic still far exceeds danger of corona imo. If we over-allocate medical resources to corona, it will come at expense of treating other illnesses." And on March 19, Musk said, "Based on current trends, probably close to zero new cases in US too by end of April." New cases have been growing by about 25,000 per day, with 1,358,000 cases in the U.S. so far.

By late April, his tweets were angrier and more forceful, especially after California refused to consider Tesla, a maker of luxury cars, an essential business like pharmacies, animal control, and grocery stores. The auto industry in general is struggling right now, as manufacturers are stuck storing a huge glut of vehicles in cargo ships at sea, with new car sales expected to fall by 50 percent in the second quarter, which would be the biggest drop on record in 40 years. Musk shared an anti-lockdown opinions piece while demanding "Give people their freedom back!", and at one point posted an all caps "FREE AMERICA NOW." That same day, the coronavirus-related death toll in the U.S. hit 60,000, and has since ballooned to 80,000 and growing. Around the same time, news came out that the ventilators Musk said he was sending to California hospitals were actually sleep apnea machines, and a representative from Newsom's office told CNN that they "not heard of any hospital system that has received a ventilator directly from Tesla or Musk."

Musk has been defending his call to reopen the California plant by claiming that, since the company also has a facility in Shanghai, Tesla knows better than most companies how to keep its workers safe. Historically though, the company has a fraught record on worker safety. A 2018 story by the investigative news organization Reveal found that the Fremont, California factory was undercounting workplace injuries, and that managers refused to clearly mark hazard zones because "Elon does not like the color yellow." A 2019 investigation by USA Today also found that another plant in Nevada was seeing accidents and injuries at a rate of "at least three a month," and not all of those were being reported as legally required. And, more recently, some workers at the same California factory were forced to complete projects on-site even after the statewide shutdown orders were in place—at least two office employees at the time tested positive for COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Musk's personal fortune has grown by $8 billion over the course of the pandemic, mostly by partnering with medical equipment companies, bringing his estimated net worth to just shy of $40 billion, according to Forbes. But he's reportedly on track for a major payout from Tesla—if the company's six-month average valuation hits $100 billion, then Musk gets a $750 million bonus.

Jeff Bezos has reportedly made another $25 billion since the beginning of the year. 

Originally Appeared on GQ