Elon Musk won his game of chicken against local government bureaucrats last week. His company Tesla opted to reopen its assembly Monday in defiance of the Alameda County public health order. Now, Alameda County has agreed to the reopening. That bureaucrats caved to Musk reveals two important things: Government health orders are arbitrary, and authorities are willing to make exceptions for powerful billionaires, while squelching small businesses.
Back on March 19, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a shelter-in-place order with no end date in sight. Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, has never been shy about voicing his opinion. He called the coronavirus panic “dumb” in a tweet and said “the panic will cause more harm than the virus, if that hasn’t happened already.”
He reluctantly shut down Tesla’s Fremont factory on March 23, after days of back-and-forth talks with Alameda County and California officials. Still, Musk couldn’t hide his disdain for the shelter-in-place orders in California and around the country. On a Tesla earnings call, Musk said, “To say that they cannot leave their house and they will be arrested if they do … this is fascist. This is not democratic. This is not freedom. Give people back their g-dd-mn freedom.”
Musk has been making noise about reopening Tesla factories lately, after a number of automakers reopened their assembly plants in recent weeks, including the Mercedes-Benz factory in Alabama and BMW, Hyundai, and Kia plants in South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. Even the Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has issued one of the most strict stay-at-home orders among all 50 states, said she would allow GM, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler to reopen their assembly plants on May 18.
Alameda County health officer Erica Pan said May 8, however, that the Tesla plant in Fremont must remain closed, despite Newson’s announcement just a day earlier, which said manufacturers in California would be allowed to open. Musk believes Tesla would lose its ability to compete with other automakers if it remains closed while others are back in business, because other automakers would be able to “quickly satisfy demand in an economic rebound and stock dealerships with new vehicles while Tesla rebuilt inventory.”
Elon Musk Prevails
A frustrated Musk took to Twitter. He first announced that Tesla had filed a lawsuit against Alameda County. Then he portended to move Tesla’s headquarters and future programs to Texas or Nevada. The Fremont Tesla plant employs more than 10,000 Californians.
Musk’s tweet received an angry response from California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, who sponsored the notorious job-killing AB5 bill that shattered the lives of freelance workers in the state. “F*ck Elon Musk,” Gonzales tweeted. This wasn’t the first time she used profanity in a public forum. Musk’s response was priceless. He tweeted, “Message received.”
Unwilling to wait any longer, Musk took the matter into his own hands. On May 11, he announced on Twitter, “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.” His action received an enthusiastic endorsement from President Donald Trump.
By Tuesday evening, the bureaucrats of Alameda County gave in. They issued an about-face statement, saying, “[W]e have agreed Tesla can begin to augment their Minimum Business Operations this week in preparation for a possible reopening as soon as next week.”
Musk won his battle against unelected officials who see no limit of their power in telling people what to do and how to live. But then again, Musk is a billionaire, and his companies employ tens of thousands of people. He wields so much leverage that he could break a government order without suffering any consequences. Millions of small business owners, who are eager to reopen their businesses just like Musk, haven’t been so lucky.
Small Business Owners Continue to Suffer
Shelley Luther, owner of Salon à la Mode in Dallas, spent two nights in jail because she defied the state’s stay-at-home order and reopened her salon April 24. Despite taking all the safety measures imaginable, including sanitization and limiting the customers allowed inside, she was told to shut down her business. After she refused to comply, she was hauled in front of State District Judge Eric Moyé, who called her action “selfish.”
In her now-famous response, she told Moyé: “Feeding my kids is not selfish. I have hair stylists that are going hungry because they’d rather feed their kids. So sir, if you think the law is more important than kids being fed, then please go ahead with your decision. But I’m not going to shut the salon.”
Judge Moye ordered her to spend seven days in jail and pay a $7,000 fine. She was released early only after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order protecting her.
Jennifer Hulan, owner of Water’s Edge Winery and Bistro in Centennial, Colorado, defied Democratic Gov. Jared Polis’ safer-at-home order and began providing dine-in service May 1. The governor’s order said restaurants could provide only pickup or delivery service until at least May 27.
However, given that three-quarters of the restaurant’s revenue came from its winery, the curbside pickup and delivery model doesn’t work well for Hulan. The restaurant’s weekly revenue plunged more than two-thirds, and she struggles to keep her five employees, pay the $8,700-per-month rent, and make the payment on a 10-year small business loan she borrowed in 2014 to start the restaurant, a loan for which she had to use her own house as collateral.
She took a number of safety measures upon opening the dine-in service. Inside the restaurant, she set up only side tables with a wide-open space in the center. Since the weather has been very pleasant, she arranged tables in her back parking lot, keeping 15 feet between each in what she describes as an “extreme social distancing” measure. Employees also sanitize each table and chair immediately after customers leave. She doesn’t require her employees to wear masks because a number of health professionals she consulted had told her masks are ineffective in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
For many in the community, the reopening of Water’s Edge was a welcome sign of life starting to return to normal. Of course, not everyone was happy about it. The Tri-County Health Department, the Colorado district’s public health agency, ordered Water’s Edge to close on May 7, saying anyone who disobeys the government’s order “may be punished by a fine of up to $5,000 and imprisonment in a county jail for up to eighteen months.” Hulan had to shut down her restaurant for that day.
After her lawyer negotiated with health department officials, she reopened for pickup and delivery only, back to the same business model that significantly hindered the winery’s revenue and livelihood. She is seeking legal action against the health department, hoping to begin safely offering dine-in service again soon.
Americans Must Be Free
There are many more Americans like Luther and Hulan. They don’t have Musk’s influence, but they are just as dedicated, striving to provide for themselves, their families, and their communities through hard work. Local government officials have kept moving the goalposts of the shutdown, from the initial “flatten the curve” to demanding we must now find a cure for COVID-19 before life can begin to return to normal.
Americans are meant to be free. We can’t be locked inside our houses for months, unable to see and comfort our families and friends, unable to experience everything we used to enjoy — sports, concerts, eating out — as they continue to crumble and disappear in front of our eyes. That’s not living.
By caving in to Musk’s demand to reopen, government officials showed their health orders have been arbitrary and ineffective all along. If the government could change its rule and make an exception for a billionaire on a moment’s notice, it has no authority nor credibility to prevent business owners like Shelly Luther and Jennifer Hulan from reopening their businesses too.