DETROIT (Reuters) – Factory workers began returning to assembly lines in Michigan on Monday, paving the way for major automakers to restore thousands of jobs across North America after more than six weeks of a coronavirus lockdown.
With millions of Americans thrown out of work and economic activity cratering, a growing number of states are ending the strict lockdowns that were put in place in March and April to slow the spread of 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 the planned May 18 restart of auto production.
“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. Busche had been making parts for non-auto customers deemed essential, such as Deere & Co (DE.N) and Emerson Electric Co (EMR.N), but is now firing up its furnaces for auto customers and training employees on how to be safe during the pandemic.
Detroit’s Big Three automakers – General Motors Co (GM.N), Ford Motor Co (F.N) and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCHA.MI)(FCAU.N) – have said they plan to restart vehicle production at their North American plants on May 18. Some skilled trades and salaried employees began work on Monday to prepare plants ahead of the wider production restart.
The auto sector accounts for 6% of U.S. economic output and employs more than 835,000 Americans. The government of Mexico, another important link in North America’s automobile production chain, is expected to make an announcement this week regarding its plans for the industry.
Overall, nearly 80,000 Americans have died in the pandemic out of more than 1.34 million known U.S. infections tallied 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.
In Ohio, another highly industrial state, the vast majority of retail shops can start serving customers on Tuesday. Even New York, the epicenter of the U.S. crisis, was set to relax social distancing measures by week’s end in some parts of the state outside Greater New York City.
NEW YORK PHASE-IN
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he expected several parts of the state to begin a phased-in reopening as soon as this weekend after his stay-at-home order expires on May 15.
Certain low-risk businesses and activities like landscaping, tennis courts and drive-in theaters will open, Cuomo told a news conference. “We took the worst situation in the nation and changed the trajectory,” he said.
Rural parts of New York will begin to emerge from the statewide lockdown first. But New York City and its suburbs still must clear some formidable hurdles, including forging a safety plan for its regional subway and commuter rail system.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said there had been “pretty good and pretty consistent” progress on key fronts of the battle to stop the spread of the virus and said restrictions for non-essential businesses may relax next month.
Nearly all of the 50 states have begun loosening restrictions on daily business and social life under growing economic pressure. The pandemic has put more Americans out of work than any time since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
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.
Isaac Weisfuse, a former deputy commissioner at New York City’s health department, said: “No amount of economic activity can replace lives lost.”
Trump and officials from his administration scheduled a 4 p.m. (2000 GMT) news briefing on Monday to discuss testing.
Highlighting the risk of contracting the virus is a growing number of cases among those close to top U.S. officials. A member of Vice President Mike Pence’s staff has tested positive for the coronavirus as has a White House valet. Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker is working from home after a senior staff member tested positive last week.
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