City Manager Mark Freitag’s facial expressions were hidden under a mask, but he certainly seemed sincere while talking about Tesla at Monday’s coronavirus briefing.
He pitched the former General Motors site as a potential new home for the car manufacturer, responding to threats by Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk to move its manufacturing plants out of California. A tweet directed at Musk on Monday morning noted Janesville has a “skilled workforce ready to make cars.”
“Wouldn’t that be a cool thing to happen here in the city of Janesville?” Freitag said at the Monday briefing.
All the jobs that come with a Tesla plant would surely be cool. Not so much the headaches that would come with having Elon Musk as a new business leader in town.
Freitag unintentionally shined a spotlight on the dilemma facing communities trying to find paths out of the COVID-19 pandemic. They want to reopen their economies, but they’re struggling to strike the right balance between heavy-handed lockdowns and a prepandemic free-for-all.
We don’t envy the job of government officials—Democratic or Republican—attempting to navigate through skyrocketing unemployment and public health fears. There’s no precedent to guide them. Complicating their task are the contradictory messages sent by this nation’s leaders—from the Oval Office to the corporate board rooms—on how to best reopen the economy.
Musk is among those who’s proving unhelpful. No doubt one of this nation’s great innovators, he unfortunately also fashions himself as a public health expert and has pushed controversial views downplaying the threat of COVID-19.
While Freitag and city officials have encouraged Janesville residents to wear masks and take the virus threat seriously, people such as Musk have portrayed the government response as a power grab.
He’s compared COVID-19 to the common cold and has repeatedly questioned the need for social distancing measures, likening them to “forcibly imprisoning people in their homes.”
Musk has a large cheering section, but you won’t find public health officials in it. They’ve worked to debunk Musk’s claims, while Musk has remained defiant. After threatening to leave California, Musk on Monday flouted California and Alameda County orders by restarting production at Tesla’s assembly plant there.
Is that the kind of business leader Janesville wants? We can’t imagine Freitag and other officials appreciating a business openly defying the law no matter how many jobs it might create.
The economy cannot remain closed forever, but that doesn’t mean reopening must be an all-or-nothing proposition. There’s a middle ground to be claimed, and, for the most part, local and state officials have pursued it.
We don’t fault Freitag for wanting to lure Tesla and all its jobs to Janesville. But his desire to boost the local economy is a reminder that government officials have an obligation to anchor their economic development goals to the new COVID-19 reality. City and business leaders must work together, recognizing that the economy and public health interests are not mutually exclusive.
Musk has failed to grasp this point, which takes the gleam off any dream to land a new Tesla plant for Janesville.