Workers in U.S. auto industry return to jobs amid concerns of 2nd virus wave

By Ben Klayman DETROIT (Reuters) - Factory workers began returning to assembly lines in Michigan on Monday, paving the way to reopen the U.S.

Reuters May 12, 2020 06:10:29 IST
Workers in U.S. auto industry return to jobs amid concerns of 2nd virus wave

Workers in US auto industry return to jobs amid concerns of 2nd virus wave

By Ben Klayman

DETROIT (Reuters) - Factory workers began returning to assembly lines in Michigan on Monday, paving the way to reopen the U.S. auto sector but stoking fears of a second wave of coronavirus infections as strict lockdowns are eased across the country.

With millions of Americans out of work and much of the economy at a virtual standstill, a growing number of states are ending tough restrictions on commerce and social life put in place to slow the outbreak.

Some auto suppliers in Michigan, a Midwest industrial powerhouse hard hit by the pandemic and its economic fallout, reopened plants on Monday with skeleton crews to get ready for a resumption of vehicle production next week.

Skilled-trades workers and salaried employees also began returning auto assembly plants themselves to prepare for the wider restart.

"We're starting up our foundry this week in anticipation of the orders coming in next week," Joe Perkins, chief executive of Busche Performance Group, an engineering, casting and machining firm, said in a telephone interview.

Factory workers will be issued face masks, checked for fever and required to submit health-screening questionnaires.

MUSK DEFIES LOCKDOWN

The manufacturing reopening ordered last week by Governor Gretchen Whitmer was crucial to vehicle production resuming elsewhere because so many key parts suppliers are based around in the automaking hub of Detroit.

Detroit's Big Three automakers – General Motors Co , Ford Motor Co and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV - plan to restart production at North American plants on May 18.

The auto sector accounts for 6% of U.S. economic output and employs more than 835,000 Americans.

A small but high-profile sector of the U.S. auto industry became a flashpoint in California on Monday as Elon Musk, CEO of electric car-maker Tesla Inc , defied local health officials and restarted his factory outside San Francisco.

California Governor Gavin Newsom had given the OK for manufacturing to reopen statewide on Friday, but Alameda County's more stringent lockdown orders barring factory operations for another week supersede Newsom's authority. Musk, who had threatened to move his plant to another state unless officials relented, said on Twitter production resumed on Monday, adding he would join workers on the assembly line. "If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me," he wrote.

U.S. DEATH TOLL CLIMBING

Overall, more than 80,000 Americans have died in the pandemic out of more than 1.34 million known U.S. infections reported since Jan. 20, according to a Reuters tally. Michigan has counted more than 4,500 deaths related to COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, ranking fourth among the 50 U.S. states.

Ohio, another industrial state and key player in the U.S. auto industry, reopened its manufacturing last week and said most retail shops could welcome customers back on Tuesday.

Even New York, the epicenter of the U.S. crisis, was set to ease some restrictions, permitting certain low-risk activities like landscaping, tennis courts and drive-in theaters to reopen this coming weekend in rural areas.

"We took the worst situation in the nation and changed the trajectory," Governor Andrew Cuomo said.

Pressure to loosen business constraints has mounted under a rapidly deteriorating economic outlook. The pandemic has put more Americans out of work than any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s, prompting Congress to pass trillions of dollars in emergency relief for workers and businesses.

Republican President Donald Trump, accused by Democrats of playing down and mishandling the outbreak, has pushed to reopen the economy, seen as key to his re-election bid on Nov. 3.

TRUMP'S TWEETS AND TESTS

In a tweet, Trump on Monday again accused Democrats of taking their time lifting restrictions to embarrass him, a charge they have denied.

Public health experts have warned that moving too quickly to reopen, without vastly expanded diagnostic testing and other precautions firmly in place, risks fueling a resurgence of the virus. Polling shows a majority of Americans also concerned.

Whitmer maintained an order requiring residents to remain mostly indoors when not at work. "We've got to remember that continuing to stay home ... is the key to helping us lower the chance of a second wave," she said.

Separately, the White House directed its staff to wear masks at all times in the building, except when at their own desks, a senior administration official said. Trump's valet and Vice President Mike Pence's press secretary both tested positive for the coronavirus last week.

The White House health scare has had ramifications far beyond the nation's capital. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds was following a modified self-quarantine due to possible coronavirus exposure during a White House visit and meetings in Iowa with Pence last week.

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker was working from home after a senior staff member tested positive last week. Pritzker tested negative on Sunday, according to his office.

(Reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit, Maria Caspani in New York, Doina Chiacu and Lisa Lamber in Washington and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Writing by Steve Gorman and Paul Simao; Editing by Howard Goller, Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman)

This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.

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