Ford Motor Co. temporarily shut down its Chicago Assembly Plant for a portion of Tuesday after two employees tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The facility had only been open for a single day, suggesting automakers may have to contend with infected employees on a regular basis. Responsible for Ford Explorer, Police Interceptor Utility, and Lincoln Aviator production, the site was idled briefly for disinfection before being reopened on Wednesday morning.

This return proved short-lived. The Chicago Tribune reports that Chicago Assembly closed again today, although COVID-19 was not to blame. Wednesday’s culprit happened to be those nasty supply chain issues we’ve been harping on. Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant (home of the F-Series) did have a fresh coronavirus case, however. The facility was forced to match the Chicago factory’s response and shut down for sanitization measures on the same day — though at least Dearborn Truck seems to have a sufficient number of parts on hand. 

Ford spokeswoman Kelli Felker explained that an unidentified supplier had left the automaker short on parts in Chicago, declining to name specific names. She did say that the matter would likely be resolved by Wednesday evening, with production resuming before Thursday morning.

From the Chicago Tribune:

At full capacity, the assembly plant runs with three shifts, seven days a week. Ford’s stamping plant in Chicago Heights also reopened Monday.

The Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker said it notified workers known to have been in close contact with the infected individuals at the Chicago Assembly Plant and asked them to self-quarantine for 14 days.

“It is important to note that due to incubation time, we know these employees did not contract COVID-19 while at work. Our protocols are in place to help stop the spread of the virus,” Felker said in a text.

Get comfortable with these kinds of incidents, as they’re likely to remain the status quo for a while. Despite the whole world trying to restore supply chains to a state approaching normalcy, they’re a total mess and will likely take weeks to get back in order. Meanwhile, automakers have implemented protocol at factory sites to help identify infected workers while making procedural changes designed to help protect staff.

Unfortunately, forcing facilities to shut down every time someone comes in with a fever may have wide-ranging consequences. Having been largely business-free for two months, domestic automakers are desperate to resume production and get some sales in before 2020 ends. And yet they’re going to pause every single time a new infection appears so that a factory can be sterilized.

Despite a weird amount of censorship surrounding the issue, we’ve gradually learned that coronavirus contagion rates are probably a lot higher than anyone realized, while the mortality rate is much lower than originally feared. Basically, everyone who was initially eager to prohibit “misinformation” ended up censoring valid information, while “authoritative sources” gradually changed their tune. This caused plenty of panic and confusion around policy at a time when facts were few, likely influencing the collective response.

The picture is somewhat clearer now, and COVID-19 is looking a little less scary for it. It’s still spreading, though, and there’s good reason to take steps to curtail that. Unfortunately, automakers are already well behind their production schedules and may be further hindered if they have to take a day off whenever someone shows signs of illness… not that there’s much of an alternative. The UAW has been adamant that protecting workers is its top priority, saying it won’t settle for automakers doing anything but the most they can to improve testing and reduce infections. Local governments have said much the same, with some states only agreeing to let production resume after manufacturers submitted health and safety plans.

For Ford, this has meant introducing routine temperature checks for employees, mandating face masks, providing face shields, as well as expanding the time between production shifts to limit interaction between employees. It also means reacting aggressively to any new outbreak, which is where we get our first bit of good news.

Ford said that, due to the incubation period of COVID-19, the infected employees couldn’t have gotten the virus at work. They also didn’t spend a lot of time on the assembly line, limiting the chance of spreading the virus to someone else. Those health checks will hopefully ensure that’s the case, though we’ll be watching to see how effective the new countermeasures prove to be in the coming months — both in terms of containing the pandemic and helping automakers stay on schedule.

[Image: Ford Motor Co.]

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