While Tesla has no confirmed coronavirus case, Ford and GM do: plants are still working.
The Model Y deliveries started on a Friday, The 13th. There is no need to be superstitious about that, but the only plant currently producing it is in a place with a COVID-19 lockdown order. In other words, it will have its production stopped immediately, right? Not really: the LA Times published Tesla was considered as "essential business" and Fremont allowed to keep working.
What is the definition of "essential business" in COVID-19 times? We tried to discover more about it and found the original Alameda County order to shelter.
UPDATE: GM and Ford had confirmed cases of workers infected with coronavirus and refuse to shut down their factories. The text has been changed to reflect that.
It specifically defines essential businesses in a rather extensive item. You can read it below:
"f. For the purposes of this Order, "Essential Businesses" means:
i. Healthcare Operations and Essential Infrastructure;
ii. Grocery stores, certified farmers' markets, farm and produce stands,
supermarkets, food banks, convenience stores, and other establishments
engaged in the retail sale of canned food, dry goods, fresh fruits and
vegetables, pet supply, fresh meats, fish, and poultry, and any other
household consumer products (such as cleaning and personal care
products). This includes stores that sell groceries and also sell other nongrocery products, and products necessary to maintaining the safety,
sanitation, and essential operation of residences;
iii. Food cultivation, including farming, livestock, and fishing;
iv. Businesses that provide food, shelter, and social services, and other
necessities of life for economically disadvantaged or otherwise needy
v. Newspapers, television, radio, and other media services;
vi. Gas stations and auto-supply, auto-repair, and related facilities;
vii. Banks and related financial institutions;
viii. Hardware stores;
ix. Plumbers, electricians, exterminators, and other service providers who
provide services that are necessary to maintaining the safety, sanitation,
and essential operation of residences, Essential Activities, and Essential
x. Businesses providing mailing and shipping services, including post office
xi. Educational institutions—including public and private K-12 schools,
colleges, and universities—for purposes of facilitating distance learning or
performing essential functions, provided that social distancing of six-feet
per person is maintained to the greatest extent possible;
xii. Laundromats, drycleaners, and laundry service providers;
xiii. Restaurants and other facilities that prepare and serve food, but only for
delivery or carry out. Schools and other entities that typically provide free
food services to students or members of the public may continue to do so
under this Order on the condition that the food is provided to students or
members of the public on a pick-up and take-away basis only. Schools
and other entities that provide food services under this exemption shall not
permit the food to be eaten at the site where it is provided, or at any other
xiv. Businesses that supply products needed for people to work from home;
xv. Businesses that supply other essential businesses with the support or
supplies necessary to operate;
xvi. Businesses that ship or deliver groceries, food, goods or services directly
xvii. Airlines, taxis, and other private transportation providers providing
transportation services necessary for Essential Activities and other
purposes expressly authorized in this Order;
xviii. Home-based care for seniors, adults, or children;
xix. Residential facilities and shelters for seniors, adults, and children;
xx. Professional services, such as legal or accounting services, when
necessary to assist in compliance with legally mandated activities;
xxi. Childcare facilities providing services that enable employees exempted in
this Order to work as permitted. To the extent possible, childcare facilities
must operate under the following mandatory conditions:
1. Childcare must be carried out in stable groups of 12 or fewer
("stable" means that the same 12 or fewer children are in the same
group each day).
2. Children shall not change from one group to another.
3. If more than one group of children is cared for at one facility, each
group shall be in a separate room. Groups shall not mix with each
4. Childcare providers shall remain solely with one group of children."
As you may imagine, Tesla does not fit any of the descriptions. With a lot of effort, you could say it is included in the vi. section, ironically among "gas stations and auto-supply, auto-repair, and related facilities." Another description would be at the xvii. section, as "private transportation providers," but that would be even more of a stretch.
The truth is not even the Alameda County spokesman, Ray Kelly, was able to provide a conclusive answer when asked what was so essential about a car company. This is what he had to say about it:
"That's a good question. We're in uncharted waters right now."
You could argue that Tesla needs Fremont to work because it is its only factory or at least the only one producing Model S, Model X, and Model Y units. After being shut down, Giga Shanghai is back at manufacturing the Model 3 in China. The irony is that it is probably because the lockdown there was successful, and China managed to control the outbreak.
If that reasoning were correct, Ferrari would also have to keep its factory in Modena working. Yet, it closed it down on March 14, up to March 27. So far, Italy has 27,980 cases, with 2,158 deaths and we do not doubt these numbers will look outdated in a matter of hours. That means 7.7 percent of all people infected there died, something that is likely boosted due to an exhausted public healthcare system, with fewer ventilators that it should have.
Would private hospitals in the US face the same hard time? So far, the country has 4,727 cases and 93 deaths, according to Worldometers.info. That is a 2 percent mortality rate. The Johns Hopkins University developed a world map of the coronavirus spread that shows different numbers: 4,661 cases and 85 deaths at the time of publishing.
The question is: is that death percentage acceptable for a business to keep operating? Tesla has 10,000 workers at Fremont divided into four shifts, which means around 2,500 people at the factory in each shift.
For the record, the US has car factories in Michigan (12), Alabama (5), Ohio (4), Indiana (4), Kentucky (4), South Carolina (3), Tennessee (3), Texas (2), Missouri (2), Mississipi (2), Illinois (2), Georgia, Kansas, and California.
Among these states, California has the most confirmed coronavirus cases (557), with 7 deaths. Georgia has 121 confirmed cases and 1 death. Illinois has 105, Texas has 85, and Michigan has 54. Yet, Musk said not one of its employees was contaminated. That is not something other automakers can claim.
It makes sense for Tesla to stop first, but all other automakers should follow suit not to turn out as California did. A GM employee tested positive at the Cole Engineering Center on its Warren Technical Center, according to The Detroit News. Ford confirmed another case with an employee that deals with product development, according to Click on Detroit.
While UAW local leaders ask Ford to shut factories for two weeks, the UAW president, Rory Gamble, is still discussing with the Big Three what to do. Is there any doubt left about that?
In his email message to Tesla workers, Elon Musk said this:
"My frank opinion is that the harm from the coronavirus panic far exceeds that of the virus itself. If there is a massive redirection of medical resources out of proportion to the danger, it will result in less available care to those with critical medical needs, which does not serve the greater good."
Paradoxically, the "massive redirection of medical resources" will only happen if COVID-19 spreads. And it may spread faster with large people gatherings, such as 2,500 workers in a large factory.
According to the reports about Musk's email message to employees, he also said COVID-19 is a "specific form of the common cold" that will affect less than "0.1 percent of the US population."
That is like saying Michael Jordan is a specific form of basketball player. It can be seen as another way of downplaying the disease and its consequences. In other words, like a subtle message for employees to be there, despite saying that workers feeling "slightest bit ill or even uncomfortable" should not "feel obligated" to go to the factory.
Although it has seemingly been authorized to keep working, should Fremont still be active? Shouldn't Musk try to prevent "massive redirection of medical resources" by allowing his workers to maintain social distancing, even if for just some days? Will other automakers also do the right thing as fast as possible?
Perhaps Tesla could set the example: not because it is easy, but rather because it is the right thing to do. Either that or governments should force automakers – all of them – to do that and shut down these factories immediately. Will politicians have that courage? Remember their names on the next election and vote for the ones that do have it.