Tesla Inc Chief Executive Elon Musk on Monday said production was resuming at the automaker's sole US vehicle factory, in California, defying an order to stay closed and saying if anyone had to be arrested it should be him.
The move comes as states and cities around the United States experiment with ways to safely reopen their economies after the coronavirus outbreak shuttered businesses and forced tens of millions of Americans out of work.
Musk over the weekend threatened to leave California for Texas or Nevada over his factory's closure. His move has highlighted the competition for jobs and ignited a rush to woo the billionaire executive by states that have reopened their economies more quickly in response to encouragement from US President Donald Trump.
In an email on Monday, Tesla referred to an order on Thursday by California's governor allowing manufacturers to resume operations and said that as of Sunday, previously furloughed employees were back to their regular employment status.
"We're happy to get back to work and have implemented very detailed plans to help you keep safe as you return," according to the email seen by Reuters and titled "Furlough Has Ended And We Are Back To Work in Production!"
Musk in a tweet said production was resuming on Monday, adding that he would join workers on the assembly line. "If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me," he wrote.
Health officials in Alameda County, where the Fremont factory is based, late on Monday said they were aware that Tesla had opened beyond the so-called minimum basic operations allowed during lockdown, and had notified the company it could not operate without a county-approved plan.
In a statement, officials said they expected a proposal from Tesla later on Monday and "hope Tesla will likewise comply without further enforcement measures." The statement did not specify consequences and said officials would not comment further.
The county's lockdown order says violations are punishable by fine, imprisonment or both.
A spokeswoman for the Fremont Police Department on Monday said her office was enforcing the lockdown order at the direction of the health department and had been advised that the county is working with Tesla directly.
Separately on Monday, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said California should do whatever is necessary to help the electric carmaker reopen its only US vehicle factory if it wants to keep the company in its state.
California Governor Gavin Newsom on Monday said he spoke to Musk several days ago and that the Tesla founder's concerns helped prompt the state to begin its phased reopening of manufacturing last week.
"I have not only known that company but I have known its founder for many, many years," Newsom said in his daily coronavirus press briefing. "I have great reverence for their technology, for their innovative spirit, for their leadership."
Tesla, which also has a vehicle plant in Shanghai and is building another in Berlin, on Saturday sued the county, alleging it had violated California's constitution by defying Newsom's orders allowing manufacturers to reopen.
Musk has discussed opening a second US factory outside California in the past. In a tweet in February, he solicited comments on potentially opening a factory in Texas.
Since his threat to leave California on Saturday, officials from Texas, Georgia, Utah, Oklahoma and Nevada have reached out to Musk on Twitter, encouraging him to relocate to their state.
A Texas official said his county was available immediately to accommodate Tesla and invited the billionaire CEO for a visit.
"We have a motivated, pro-business governor," Richard Cortez, county judge of Texas' Hidalgo County, said on Monday. "What we no longer have is a shelter at home mandate."
Musk in response tweeted: "Note is much appreciated."