Updated at 9:45 a.m. ET on Tuesday
Cars didn't change much between March and May. But the factories where they're assembled are shifting dramatically.
Auto plants are starting back up — much more slowly than they shut down — with new extensive health precautions meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus: plastic sheeting and clear shields installed on assembly lines; mandatory temperature checks and symptom questionnaires; solitary chairs in break rooms; cycles of sanitizing, again and again; fabric face masks; and, in some cases, clear plastic face shields on workers.
It's all going to take some getting used to, says Todd Dunn, president of the United Auto Workers Local 862 in Louisville, Ky. He calls the new protocols a "paradigm change" and says workers are divided on whether they're eager to return to work or wary of the risks. Or both.
"I think a lot of a lot of Americans are ready to get our country back on target," he says. "But ... we've got to be able to put in some levels of precaution that we didn't have before."
"There's a lot of high anxiety," says Ralph Morris Jr., president of UAW Local 163 near Detroit. "I mean, you read about the meat processing plants. ... In a factory setting, unless precautionary measures are taken, it could spread through the whole facility."
Nonunionized Kia, Hyundai and BMW plants in the South, where states were allowing operations to resume, restarted their lines on Monday. Toyota is eyeing a May 11 restart. Fiat Chrysler announced Tuesday it plans to reopen the week of May 18, and Ford and General Motors are also looking at mid-May as a possibility.
One challenge is that the auto industry is deeply interconnected across North America. Suppliers in different states and countries — covered by different lockdown orders — must return at roughly the same time for supply chains to operate smoothly.
Mexico is under a stay-at-home order through May. And Michigan, the heart of the U.S. auto industry, has been particularly hard-hit by the virus and continues to block nonessential businesses from operating.
Some auto suppliers have chafed at Michigan's stay-at-home order. But the UAW, which represents employees at Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler and a number of suppliers, welcomed the recent extension of the order and said that early May was too soon to restart operations. The union called for more COVID-19 tests. While temperature checks or symptom questionnaires are increasingly common safety procedures, they can't catch people who are asymptomatic but spreading the disease.
"I think the bottom line is, based on all the information we have access to, we will not have a reliable and scalable testing solution for several weeks — and it may even be months," Kiersten Robinson, the chief human resources officer for Ford, told reporters last week.
Robinson said widespread testing will be critical in the long term. But for the short term, Ford plans to send employees with symptoms to be tested at local hospitals or clinics, without offering testing to all employees.
There's pressure on car companies to figure this out quickly. Plant closures are costing the industry billions of dollars and affecting hundreds of thousands of workers. And while car sales have plummeted because of the pandemic, they've already started to recover, causing executives to worry about just how long they can remain closed before dealerships start to feel a pinch.
Sean Suggs, the president of a plant in Blue Springs, Miss., where Toyota builds Corollas, says dealers aren't yet running out of the sedan. But the uptick in sales is one reason Toyota is eyeing a May 11 restart date for his plant, he says.
He emphasized that the reopening will be gradual.
"We're not going to just flip a switch and everything's going to be back to normal," he says. "There is no going back to the normal way. We simply can't operate the way we operated before COVID-19."
"Day 1, we probably won't even produce a vehicle," he says. "We're gonna get our team members back and get them acclimated to the new way of life."
And with temperature checks and mandatory face masks, it might be a long time before that new way of life feels normal.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The U.S. auto industry is now restarting its collective engine after being idled for weeks by the coronavirus. The first wave of plants reopened today, and these plants look a little different than before, as NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.
CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: A couple of weeks ago, Mark "Gibby" Gibson went on a video tour of Detroit Diesel, a plant that makes truck engines when it's not shut down for a global pandemic.
MARK GIBSON: I thought at least I'd come out and show you guys what's been going out - on in production while you've been out.
DOMONOSKE: Gibson is a shop chairman at the plant. He was showing his union members the new safety protocols being put in place to prepare for reopening, like plastic sheeting.
GIBSON: Here I'm at the piston stuffer. You see how they got a curtain up here now 'cause there's usually two people, you know, on each side of the block.
DOMONOSKE: He pointed out health-check stations and sanitizer bottles and tapped on a large clear shield.
GIBSON: Here's some things the trades have, you know, got together for us and put up to separate, obviously, any, you know, mist or particles from your mouth, your nose.
DOMONOSKE: Before coronavirus, none of this was here. Now it's the new reality, Gibson says. Several auto plants in the South, like Kia and BMW, started back up today. Michigan is still under a stay-at-home order, so Detroit Diesel remains closed. But it has to get ready. These plants weren't designed for people to be able to stay six feet apart.
Ralph Morris Jr. is the president of the local union.
RALPH MORRIS JR: Right now, there's a lot of high anxiety. I mean, you read about the meat processing plants. And in a factory setting, unless, you know, the precautionary measures are taken, you know, it could spread through the whole facility.
DOMONOSKE: Questions about how to reopen in a way that's safe for workers have caused many companies to push back their plans to resume operations. America's big three - Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler - haven't confirmed a start date yet. Their workers are represented by the United Auto Workers union, which has called for more testing because people without symptoms can spread the disease.
Kiersten Robinston (ph) is the chief human resources officer for Ford Motor Company. On a call with reporters last week, she addressed the issue.
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KIERSTEN ROBINSON: I think the bottom line is, based on all the information we have access to, we will not have a reliable and scalable testing solution for several weeks, and it may even be months.
DOMONOSKE: For now, Ford says it will send employees who feel sick to be tested for COVID-19, but the company can't offer its own tests to all employees yet. There's intense pressure on companies to figure this out and soon. The plant closures are costing the industry billions of dollars. Hundreds of thousands of workers are affected.
And customers are already starting to buy cars again. Sean Suggs is the president of the Toyota plant in Blue Springs, Miss., where they build Corollas. He says the plant reopening will be gradual.
SEAN SUGGS: We're not going to just flip a switch, and everything's going to be back to normal. There is no going back to the normal way. We simply can't operate the way we operated before COVID-19.
DOMONOSKE: The Blue Springs plant is planning to reopen next Monday, May 11.
SUGGS: Day 1, we probably won't even produce a vehicle. We're going to get our team members back and get them acclimated to the new way of life.
DOMONOSKE: With 100% temperature checks and 100% face masks, it'll be a long time before that way of life feels 100% normal.
Camila Domonoske, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.