n Monday 11 May, Elon Musk attempted to fashion himself into a hero of the anti-public-health movement when he dared authorities to arrest him for restarting production at Tesla’s northern California car plant, in defiance of the local shelter-in-place order. Neither Musk nor anyone else has been arrested, but his action has placed state and local officials in the difficult situation of figuring out whether and how to enforce coronavirus restrictions against a litigious billionaire who is also a major employer.
On Tuesday, his cause gained the support of another hot-headed executive with an overactive Twitter account: Donald Trump. “California should let Tesla & @elonmusk open the plant, NOW,” the president tweeted Tuesday morning. “It can be done Fast & Safely!”
How did we get here? Here’s a handy timeline of what led up to Musk’s meltdown May:
On the day that global confirmed cases of Covid-19 surpass 100,000, Musk declares on Twitter: “The coronavirus panic is dumb.” The tweet sets the tone for Musk’s approach toward the deadly pandemic, repeatedly downplaying the risk of the virus and opposing public health measures.
The coronavirus panic is dumb
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 6, 2020
Six counties in the San Francisco Bay Area become the first locales in the US to order all non-essential businesses to close and require residents to shelter in place. Included in the coordinated public health order is Alameda county, home to Tesla’s only US car factory, in the city of Fremont.
Musk emails his employees to say that he plans to continue working, signaling that he does not plan to shut the factory.
On Twitter, Musk promotes chloroquine, an unproven treatment for Covid-19 that would become the darling of Fox News and Trump before being largely abandoned amid reports of dangerous cardiac side effects.
The Alameda county sheriff’s office announces that Tesla is not an essential business and therefore can only maintain “minimum basic operations” under the public health order. Tesla does not comply.
Musk tweets that Tesla will manufacture ventilators “if there is a shortage”. There is no indication that Tesla ever took any steps to do so, though Musk tweets about having a “long engineering discussion” with the medical device maker Medtronic on 21 March.
Under pressure from local officials, Tesla agrees to halt production at its Fremont factory by 23 March – a week after the public health order.
On Twitter, Musk predicts that there will be “probably close to zero new cases” of Covid-19 in the US by the end of April. He also asserts falsely that children are “essentially immune” to the virus.
California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, issues a statewide shelter-in-place order.
Musk tweets an offer to ship “FDA-approved ventilators” to hospitals. The devices turn out to be BiPap machines, which are commonly used to treat sleep apnea, rather than the much more expensive mechanical ventilators that hospitals use to intubate severely ill patients.
Bay Area officials extend their shelter-in-place orders through 3 May.
Musk promotes a YouTube video by two California doctors using misleading statistics to argue against shelter-in-place orders. The video is removed by YouTube for promoting harmful misinformation, and the doctors are “jointly and emphatically condemn[ed]” by the American College of Emergency Physicians and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine.
Musk adopts the rhetoric of anti-lockdown protesters in a late-night Twitter rant, tweeting, “FREE AMERICA NOW” and “Give people their freedom back!” He also falsely describes the shelter-in-place restrictions as “de facto house arrest”.
Musk unleashes another rant during Tesla’s quarterly earnings call with investors, declaring public health measures “fascist” and demanding: “Give people back their goddamn freedom.”
Tesla beats analyst expectations for the quarter, delivering its third straight quarterly profit despite the major coronavirus disruptions.
Another Twitter diatribe by Musk wipes about $13bn off Tesla’s market value, after he declares that he plans to sell “almost all physical possessions”, including his house(s), and then opines that Tesla’s stock price is “too high imo”. Tesla’s stock price drops about 9% following the tweets.
Tesla stock price is too high imo
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 1, 2020
Musk’s partner, Claire Boucher, a musician who performs as Grimes, gives birth to the couple’s first child, a son named X Æ A-12.
Newsom announces new rules to allow some non-essential businesses, including some manufacturers, in California to reopen on 8 May. He also says that local rules supersede statewide rules, if they are stricter.
Tesla sues Alameda county, alleging that the county’s continuing shelter-in-place order is unconstitutional.
On Twitter, Musk declares that Tesla will “now move its HQ and future programs to Texas/Nevada immediately” and threatens to stop manufacturing in Fremont. Musk also attacks the local public health officer, Dr Erica Pan, calling her “unelected and ignorant”.
County officials say they have been working with Tesla on a safety plan to allow the factory to reopen.
Tesla resumes production at the Fremont factory in defiance of the public health order. Musk tweets, “If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me.”
Alameda county officials tell Tesla that it is violating the public health order and say they hope it will “comply without further enforcement measures”.
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