Editor’s note: Since publication of this column, Elon Musk has tweeted Tesla would shift to making ventilators for hospitals if there’s a coronavirus-related shortage.
“This is crazy; this can’t be true.”
Those were the immediate thoughts of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban upon hearing on March 11 the National Basketball Association would suspend its season as a result of the spreading coronavirus pandemic. Cuban was asked his concerns for his team, and it became clear his mindset was beyond the product on the court.
“It’s not about the team, it’s about the country and life in general,” he told ESPN. “Now that we’re not playing games, what about all the people that work here on an hourly basis? We’ll put together a program for them.”
The unprovoked reaction provided a sense of calm amid a flurry of chaos. Cuban’s words carry weight, and it wasn’t long until many of his three-comma-club peers across the NBA and the rest of the sports world also on hiatus followed with similar guarantees to support the behind-the-scenes employees equally as vital to the success of the operation.
That kind of result is why the reaction of Tesla CEO Elon Musk during the pandemic has been largely disappointing. Since tweeting “the coronavirus panic is dumb” on March 6, Musk has done little publicly to walk back those words as the virus has continued to spread, the global economy has entered a freefall, and everyday life has changed for nearly the entire world.
The coronavirus panic is dumb— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 6, 2020
Many of Musk’s 32.4 million Twitter followers may still agree with him at this point, but his nearly 50,000 employees would be justified in wanting a more serious response. In fact, it’s fair for all of us to hope someone of Musk’s stature and intellect would provide more than snarky commentary during such a time. Bill Gates and his wife Melinda have committed up to $100 million for the global response to the coronavirus, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have committed $20 million to match donations in addition to $100 million pledged to help small businesses, and even Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has put aside his differences with President Trump to coordinate with the White House on the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Musk is taking jabs at Coachella.
Off social media, Musk’s interactions with his employees have been equally as muddied. A company-wide e-mail Musk sent last Friday reportedly explained to employees how they were more likely to die driving home than as a result of the coronavirus. “There are about 36 thousand automotive deaths per deaths [sic], as compared to 36 so far this year for C19,” Musk said, according to BuzzFeed News.
On Tuesday, another e-mail to employees carried a similar message.
“My frank opinion remains that the harm from the coronavirus panic far exceeds that of the virus itself,” Musk said, according to Electrek. “If there is a massive redirection of medical resources out of proportion to the danger, it will result in less available care to those with critical medical needs, which does not serve the greater good.”
In both e-mails, Musk did reportedly say employees who feel sick should stay home, but his company was also planning to keep its Fremont, Calif., factory open despite a “shelter in place” order in Alameda County, where the factory is located. A separate e-mail from Tesla’s head of HR for North America, Valerie Workman, appeared to argue Tesla had been deemed “essential” and thus could carry on.
The county’s sheriff shut that down.
“Tesla is not an essential business as defined in the Alameda County Health Order,” the sheriff’s office tweeted Tuesday. “Tesla can maintain minimum basic operations per the Alameda County Health Order.”
Tesla: @Tesla is not an essential business as defined in the Alameda County Health Order. Tesla can maintain minimum basic operations per the Alameda County Health Order.— Alameda County Sheriff (@ACSOSheriffs) March 17, 2020
Tesla may not be essential at this time, but Musk’s voice is. His platform is large, his audience captivated, and his ability to influence the public discourse is at a level few could match. Musk is entitled to his own opinions—many of which regarding coronavirus would be great, if true—but as the world searches for calm amid the chaos, his response has done little to help at a time its needed most.