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Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV on Wednesday said it is temporarily halting production at four Italian plants, two of which produce vehicles for the United States, to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

The measures come amid expanded government directives this week in Italy, which is the center of the outbreak in Europe. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the country is closing all non-essential enterprises with only grocery stores and pharmacies to remain open. Factories can continue operating with "precautions," the premier said in a televised address, according to Bloomberg.

The coronavirus presents new challenges for Fiat Chrysler, which lost $6.6 million last year in Europe as it implemented a restructuring plan. In addition to having to take "extensive preventative measures" to secure a consistent flow of vehicle parts because of the virus, the company is working to ensure the shutdowns become "no problem for total numbers of production in every plant," spokesman Mike Palese said in a statement. The automaker is unaware of any employees who have the respiratory illness.

Fiat Chrysler is stopping production Thursday, Friday and Saturday at its Melfi plant, which produces the Jeep Renegade SUV and Fiat 500X crossover for the U.S. market. Last year, the automaker sold 76,885 Renegades and 2,518 500X vehicles here. Melfi also makes the Jeep Compass SUV, but not for the U.S.

Additionally, the Cassino plant that produces the Alfa Romeo Giulia sports car and Stelvio SUV for the United States is stopping production on Thursday and Friday. There were 8,704 Giulias and 9,444 Stelvios last year sold here.

The Pomigliano plant making the Fiat Panda city car is down for three days starting Wednesday. The Sevel plant the company jointly runs with its pending-merger partner French automaker Groupe PSA also has paused production for three days starting Thursday of the Fiat Ducato commercial van.

Fiat Chrysler says it is sanitizing all work and rest areas, changing rooms and restrooms and is reducing daily production rates to increase spacing between employees at their workstations.

The company's Kragujevac plant in Serbia last month was the first auto plant in Europe to be affected by COVID-19 as Fiat Chrysler experienced disruption to its supply chain from the outbreak in China. That factory is up and running again.

The shutdowns come on the heels of a 5,000-person headcount reduction to right-size the European business. The company is focusing on higher-margin passenger cars there, looking to reduce its portfolio age by four years by 2024 and implementing its turnaround plan for its premium Alfa Romeo brand. Meanwhile, it must invest in electrified versions of its vehicles to meet stricter carbon emission standards.

The automaker previously has said it has implemented nonessential travel restrictions on its employees and is screening visitors. In February. the company also began allowing office-based employees to work from home, though all administrative areas of the company "will continue their normal activities in compliance with government directives and regulations."

Last week, a Ford Motor Co. employee at its Merkenich technical center near Cologne, Germany, was diagnosed with coronavirus and has been quarantined. Additionally, the Dearborn automaker instructed 30 people who came in direct contract with the colleague to self-quarantine. The center also was disinfected.

bnoble@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble

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