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Elon Musk becomes champion of defying virus stay-home orders

FREMONT, Calif. – Tesla CEO Elon Musk has emerged as a champion of defying stay-home orders intended to stop the coronavirus from spreading, picking up support — as well as critics — on social media.

Among the supporters was President Donald Trump, who on Tuesday morning tweeted that Tesla's San Francisco Bay Area factory should be allowed to open despite local health department orders that it stay closed except for minimum basic operations.

“It can be done fast & safely,” the president tweeted, joining many of Musk's 34 million Twitter followers who back the defiance.

Among Musk’s biggest critics is California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who used an expletive to describe the CEO after his threats to relocate his operations to Texas or Nevada. She said the company is disregarding worker safety and bullying public officials.

Tesla's factory reopened Monday with Musk practically daring local authorities to arrest him. The plant apparently continued operations on Tuesday. The company met a Monday deadline to submit a site-specific plan to protect worker safety, which the Alameda County Public Health Department is reviewing, said county spokeswoman Neetu Balram.

The restart defied orders from the county health department, which has deemed the factory a nonessential business that can’t fully open under virus restrictions. The department said Monday it warned the company was operating in violation of the county health order, and hoped Tesla will “comply without further enforcement measures” until the county approves a site-specific plan required by the state.

“We look forward to reviewing Tesla’s plan and coming to agreement on protocol and a timeline to reopen safely,” the statement read.

State law allows a fine of up to $1,000 a day or up to 90 days in jail for operating in violation of health orders.

The plant in Fremont, a city of more than 230,000 people south of San Francisco, had been closed since March 23. It employs about 10,000 workers.

Public health experts have credited the stay-home orders with slowing the spread of novel coronavirus, helping hospitals handle an influx of cases. The coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people. But it has killed more than 80,000 people in the U.S., with the death toll rising.

Alameda County was among six San Francisco Bay Area counties that were the first in the nation to impose stay-at-home orders in mid-March. Gov. Gavin Newsom has repeatedly said that counties can impose restrictions that are more stringent than state orders.

The order in the Bay Area has been extended until the end of the month, but the counties plan to allow some limited business and manufacturing starting May 18, the same day Detroit automakers plan to reopen auto assembly plants. Some auto parts plants were to restart production this week.

The Detroit automakers' 150,000 U.S. workers are represented by the United Auto Workers union, which has negotiated for added safety precautions. Tesla's workers do not have a union.

Musk, whose company has sued Alameda County seeking to overturn its order, threatened to move Tesla’s manufacturing operations and headquarters from the state.

Tesla contends in the lawsuit that Alameda County can’t be more restrictive than orders from Newsom. The lawsuit says the governor’s coronavirus restrictions refer to federal guidelines classifying vehicle manufacturing as essential businesses that are allowed to continue operating.

No agency appeared ready to enforce the order against Tesla. County sheriff;s Sgt. Ray Kelly said any enforcement would come from Fremont police. Geneva Bosques, Fremont police spokeswoman, said officers would take action at the direction of the county health officer.

County Supervisor Scott Haggerty, who represents Fremont, said he’s been working on the issue for weeks trying to find a way for Tesla to reopen in a way that satisfies the health officer. He said officials were moving toward allowing Tesla to restart May 18, but he suspects Musk wanted to restart stamping operations to make body parts needed to resume assembling electric vehicles.

Tesla has a plan to maintain worker safety, including the wearing of gloves and masks, installing barriers between workers and maintaining social distancing. Haggerty said the company initially pushed back on checking employee temperatures before boarding a company bus to get to work. But Tesla relented, he said, and agreed to check workers.

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Krisher reported from Detroit. AP Reporters Janie Har and Juliet Williams in San Francisco and Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento, California, contributed to this report.