Two Ford Motor Company employees in China were quarantined after being diagnosed with coronavirus and have made a full recovery, but the company is declining to provide any specific details about the situation or the patients.
“The coronavirus has had the attention of Ford senior executives from (CEO) Jim (Hackett) on down since late January,” spokesman T.R. Reid said Wednesday. “We identified the potential for an issue and the need to be on top of it from the start.”
After confirming two employees had been infected, Reid said Ford continues coordinating safety precautions with Chinese government officials, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ford and its joint venture partners have 10 manufacturing plants in China, none in Wuhan or the immediate area, Reid said. Most of the factories are auto assembly and some build vehicle components.
Ford and other manufacturers initially closed operations after the Chinese New Year on Jan. 25 and encouraged employees to work from home.
“That was by government mandate as they tried to get control of the situation,” Reid said. “Folks have returned to offices. We’re applying good health practices in all locations as recommended by Chinese authorities.”
Hackett emailed a letter to employees Tuesday that said the company is meeting daily to “review the effects of the Coronavirus: Covid19.”
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Possible impact launches
He wrote, “Every one of those meetings starts with the question of impacts of the virus on our people and what steps can we take to enhance their safety given its likely spread. … We have moved now to discussing the virus impact on our travel, (product) launch plans and other aspects of our business lives that depend on us being able to move around.”
Ford has plans to reveal a series of high-profile products in 2020, including the Ford Bronco. The new vehicle lineup has been a cornerstone of financial reports.
“I have met with our top team to gain input, listened to proclamations from health and disease specialists in the government, and talked with (executive chairman) Bill Ford,” Hackett wrote. “We have also been monitoring the policies of other corporations, many of whom are suppliers to us.”
The company announced an immediate restriction on all domestic and international air travel. No travel within countries or no travel between countries. Essentially, a shelter-in-place advisory until at least March 27.
Exemptions will be granted only if essential to operations and might include situations such as plant, supplier and marketing readiness for product launches, Hackett said.
In addition, Ford is “assessing” visits to sites by suppliers and others the company doesn’t want to “inadvertently bring the coronavirus into Ford,” Hackett wrote.
The company is discouraging handshakes and encouraging the regular use of hand sanitizer. “If you’re in a queue, keep a yard or meter between you and the next person,” he wrote.
Ford employees have been asked to look at the calendar for “at least 90 days and find creative ways to complete work without traveling or having people needlessly come to us. We can use the phone and email, and technologies like Webex, Skype and Bluescape, to meet and collaborate virtually. Some meetings or gatherings may have to be cancelled or rescheduled.”
This advisory comes after news that the Geneva auto show has been cancelled and the Beijing auto show postponed. At this time, there are no plans to cancel the Detroit auto show.
Meanwhile, spokesmen for both General Motors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said Wednesday there are no known cases of coronavirus within their companies.
GM CEO Mary Barra said Wednesday morning that no one at the company was known to have the virus. GM has asked all people who have traveled to China, South Korea, Iran, Japan and Italy within the past 14 days to not attend anything at any GM facility in North America.
In addition, GM confirmed Wednesday new “isolation” guidelines for all employees who are returning from, or have had a layover, in the above countries. It starts the day after an employee leaves that country and they are not to enter any GM facility until the quarantine period has passed. If a person has had close contact or carted with someone diagnosed, the “isolation period” starts the day after the last contact, GM said.
“Visitors, vendors, suppliers and contractors must comply with this guidance as well,” GM said in a statement.
Also on Wednesday, the UAW announced a domestic and international travel ban for all staff as a precaution related to the fast-moving contagion.
“This is a precautionary action not meant to elicit concern, but to help in dealing with the spread of this epidemic,” said Rory Gamble, president of the UAW, in a statement. “Road travel will be permitted.”
He noted, “The UAW continues to review in all our sectors the supply chain and status of our workplaces.”
Marick Masters, a business professor at Wayne State University who closely monitors the automotive industry, said the coronavirus will directly affect production and sales.
“Ford employs about 37,000 people in China, where production and other economic activities have shut down due to this public health threat,” Masters said. “Public health is a major risk factor for businesses in any industry, but especially those like auto with globally interdependent supply chains.”
Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. “The auto industry is inextricably linked to China and other global markets, and that means exposure to globally circulating viruses like this one.”
She noted that BMW announced it was quarantining employees in Germany on Tuesday. “With viral spread and travel restrictions, auto will see a slowdown in industry activity, parts shortages and greater exposure to the financial impacts of this virus than other less globally integrated industries.”
But the timing couldn’t be worse for the automotive industry, which was already seeing an economic slowdown heading into 2020.
“Ford is not alone in this,” said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Autotrader. “The COVID-19 is yet another challenge for business in general. For the auto industry, it comes at a time when sales are softening and automakers are also focusing on investments for the future.”
Dr. Peter Koveos, a finance professor at Syracuse University who travels frequently to China, said in a statement Wednesday, “For China, of course, this came at a very inopportune time. The (Chinese) economy was slowing down, anyway. The Trade War had made an additional negative impact on China’s and our economies … It is not going to make any future relations between China and the U.S. any friendlier. For us, of course, China is a very convenient scapegoat.”
Reporter Jamie Lareau contributed to this report.