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Tesla files lawsuit against California county over plant shutdown

Alameda County ordered the facility closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus and said it was working with Elon Musk's electric car company to resolve the issue.
Image: Elon Musk, Cybertruck glass fail
Tesla CEO Elon Musk in November. His company filed a federal lawsuit Saturday against Alameda County in California over the continued closure of his U.S. manufacturing plant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP file

Tesla, the electric vehicle maker controlled by billionaire Elon Musk, filed a federal lawsuit Saturday against Alameda County in California challenging its precautionary shutdown of the company's main factory.

The suit seeks to overturn the county's May 4 health orders, which go further than Gov. Gavin Newsom's phased statewide reopening by continuing to keep businesses like Tesla's plant in Fremont, California, closed for social distancing reasons.

Musk tweeted Saturday that the the county's order was the "final straw" and that he was moving Tesla's headquarters from California to "Texas/Nevada immediately" and that he might move the Fremont plant, too, depending on how Tesla "is treated in the future."

Alameda joined five other Northern California counties and the city of Berkeley in keeping stricter orders than the state directive.

Alameda County appeared to respond to that tweet Saturday with a statement attributed to public information manager Neetu Balram, who said officials have been negotiating with Tesla.

"This has been a collaborative, good faith effort to develop and implement a safety plan that allows for reopening while protecting the health and well-being of the thousands of employees who travel to and from work at Tesla’s factory," she said.

"The team at Tesla has been responsive to our guidance and recommendations, and we look forward to coming to an agreement on an appropriate safety plan very soon," Balram said.

Alameda County officials did not immediately respond Saturday to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

Erica Pan, interim health officer for the Alameda County Public Health Department, said on Friday that it had not "given the green light" to the carmaker to resume operations, despite Musk's stated plan to reopen anyway after having been closed since March 23.

She said the county is permitted by law to require stricter precautions than the state's because of the pandemic.

After Newsom announced the state's reopening plan on Monday, Musk said he would restart the Fremont operation, and workers who did not feel safe going to work didn't have to. He has also argued that Tesla's plant in China, once the center of the coronavirus outbreak, has taught the company how to keep workers safe.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, argues Alameda County cannot "override an express permission in the Governor’s Order to continue to the operations of federal critical infrastructure businesses."

It states that Tesla is protected as an electric motor maker and as part of the energy sector but that "Alameda County proceeded to direct its shutdown at Tesla."

The suit quotes Alameda County Sheriff Gregory J. Ahern as saying March 17 that Tesla is "not an essential business as defined in the Alameda County Health Order."

On Saturday, Musk thanked Fremont Mayor Lily Mei, who said she was concerned about the affect of the closed factory on the local economy.

"The City is prepared to support Tesla as soon as they are able to resume automobile manufacturing," she said in a statement.

The filing seeks a permanent injunction against the shutdown.