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DETROIT—Factory workers began returning to assembly lines in Michigan on May 11, paving the way to reopen the US auto sector but stoking fears of a second wave of coronavirus infections as strict lockdowns are eased across the country.

With millions of Americans out of work and much of the economy at a virtual standstill, a growing number of states are relaxing tough restrictions on commerce and social life put in place to slow the outbreak.

Some auto suppliers in Michigan, a Midwest industrial powerhouse hard hit by the pandemic and its economic fallout, reopened plants with skeleton crews to get ready for a resumption of vehicle production next week.

Skilled-trades workers and salaried employees also began returning to auto assembly plants to prepare for the wider restart.

Starting up

“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.

Factory workers will be issued face masks, checked for fever and required to submit health-screening questionnaires.

“All of that’s ready to go,” Perkins said. “The big question is are people going to be buying cars and trucks.”

The manufacturing reopening approved last week by Governor Gretchen Whitmer was crucial not only to auto plants in Michigan but to vehicle production elsewhere because so many key parts suppliers are based in and around the automaking hub of Detroit.

Detroit’s Big Three automakers—General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV—said last week they planned to restart production at North American plants on May 18. The target date was set after tacit approval from the powerful United Auto Workers union, which previously opposed a May restart as “too soon and too risky.”

Protocols from China

Ford said it had adopted safety protocols from China, where car production resumed in late February, including personal protective garments on assembly lines, barriers separating employees clustered together and heavily sanitized work areas.

Much is at stake. The auto sector accounts for 6 percent of US economic output and employs more than 835,000 Americans.

A small but high-profile sector of the US auto industry became a flashpoint in California on Monday as Elon Musk, chief executive of electric carmaker Tesla Inc., defied local health officials and restarted his factory outside San Francisco.

California Governor Gavin Newsom had given the OK for manufacturing to reopen statewide on May 8, but Alameda County’s more stringent lockdown orders barring factory operations for another week superseded Newsom’s authority. Musk, who had threatened to move his plant to another state unless officials relented, said on Twitter that production resumed on May 11, adding he would join workers on the assembly line. “If anyone is arrested, I ask that it only be me,” he wrote. Reuters