Amid COVID-19 surge and new restrictions, auto industry aims to keep plants open

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

As COVID-19 cases surge to record levels and the state of Michigan prepares to enact a new round of restrictions aimed at stopping the spread of the virus, Detroit's automakers hope the success so far of their safety protocols will allow them to keep plants open and production running.

The automakers already went through an eight-week plant closure in the spring, prompted by concerns of rank-and-file United Auto Workers members and reinforced by shutdown orders from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

That shutdown caused the automakers to bleed billions of dollars in revenue, but they managed to pull off a production restart the likes of which the industry had never before experienced. They are now nearly back to pre-pandemic production levels, and some plants are even working overtime to restock the trucks and SUVs whose strong sales delivered strong third-quarter financial results for the automakers.

Employees enter the plant's south employee entrance during a shift change at the FCA Warren Truck Assembly Plant in Warren, Mich. on Nov. 9, 2020. Inside a tent at the entrance, employees are given masks if they need them and show on their phone that they have completed a covid-19 questionnaire as they enter the plant.

But now public-health experts, hospital executives and government leaders are warning of a dangerous period ahead. Michigan shattered its weekly coronavirus case record last week with a total of 44,109 new cases reported, the fifth consecutive record week for confirmed infections. Outbreaks, hospitalizations and deaths, too, are on the rise.

Whitmer on Sunday announced new restrictions that will temporarily halt in-person instruction at high schools and colleges, indoor dine-in service at restaurants and bars, and close some businesses, including movie theaters, bowling alleys and casinos, among other measures.

State officials in recent weeks have said that manufacturing facilities are among the top categories for outbreaks. As of last week, 28 out of 260 new COVID-19 clusters or outbreaks were tied to manufacturing and construction, according to data reported by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. And manufacturing/construction accounted for 63 out of 723 "ongoing" clusters or outbreaks.

It's unclear, however, how many of those outbreaks are tied to the auto sector. The Detroit Three and UAW have said that, thanks to protocols such as strong enforcement of mask-wearing, daily symptom screenings, and physical distancing, their plants have managed to avoid worker-to-worker spread, even as they've identified scattered positive cases. 

"We are continuing to enforce our health and safety protocols, and are monitoring the situation," Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV said in a statement Monday.

Ford Motor Co. has expressed satisfaction with its ability to keep production up and running since it restarted: "We haven't had any major outbreaks. We've had to shut down to do deep cleaning, (but) we've had no major issues with shutting shifts down," Gary Johnson, Ford's chief manufacturing and labor affairs officer, recently told The Detroit News.

"We've had a few minor tweaks, a few minor items where we had late deliveries from the supply base, but nothing like we had the first three or four months. It's been relatively quiet at the plants, they've been stable, and we've been able to manage the number of people who have to opt out and we've supported them with other employees."

"There is no change to manufacturing with the governor's latest orders," Ford spokeswoman Kelli Felker said in a statement. "Our plants are running at approximately 97% of planned production since we returned to work in May."

General Motors Co. spokesman David Barnas said in a statement that the automaker's "multi-layered" safety strategy "has proven effective in preventing the spread of disease across all of our facilities. We have literally worked hundreds of millions of hours using the safety protocols, and where our protocols are followed, they are working."

The Detroit Three have said they are reinforcing to their workforces' good behaviors such as frequent hand-washing, mask-wearing and avoiding large gatherings. They are increasing their outreach to employees in advance of the upcoming holiday season, and have encouraged workers to get flu shots.

The pandemic has at times disrupted the industry's global supply chain. GM, for example, halted production of the Chevrolet Corvette for two days last week after the Mexico supply chain was impacted by new coronavirus restrictions. 

"I worry in places that are very different than the United States — Canada and Mexico — that the relaxation of some of these would hurt the supply chain and then have us not be able to run our plants," GM President Mark Reuss said Friday at an automotive summit hosted by Reuters. "I know everybody's doing the best they can, but we've got to keep that up."

President-elect Joe Biden on Monday met with labor and corporate leaders, including UAW President Rory Gamble and GM CEO Mary Barra, to discuss economic issues and COVID-19. They agreed on the need to contain the virus in order to "get the economy back on track, Biden said.

"They all agree that means rallying the country behind a national strategy with robust public health measures like mandatory masking, widely-available testing with rapid results, scaled-up production of life-saving treatments and therapeutics, and safe, equitable and free distribution of the vaccine."

Now that the auto industry knows more about the virus, success in the coming months will come down to discipline and communication, Ford's Johnson said: "We've proven we can do it."

Twitter: @JGrzelewski

Staff Writers Kalea Hall and Breana Noble contributed.