Even as assembly lines across the nation have begun rolling after a weeks-long shutdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the threat of more illness looms over the industry's recovery.
BMW confirmed last week that 14 employees tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19 at its plant in Spartanburg, S.C., its biggest source of light-vehicle output worldwide.
Several automakers — including Toyota Motor Corp., Tesla Inc. and the Detroit 3 — also have reported employees testing positive for the virus.
For many factory managers, the threat of new COVID-19 cases underscores the importance of staying vigilant. Even a couple of infections could quickly sweep through a busy factory floor and bring production to a halt.
But the pressure is on factories to press ahead, said Jeff Schuster, president of global forecasting at LMC Automotive. The auto industry is in "desperate need" to rebuild inventory lost after the emergency shutdown to get operations as close to normal as possible, he said.
"Parts suppliers and vehicle manufacturers need to be prepared to react to further disruptions from the coronavirus," Schuster said. "While there has been positive momentum, the high level of uncertainty and potential safety concerns could impact the pace of the recovery."
Factory executives are doing what they can to keep the virus at bay. Automakers have instituted measures to minimize the risk of infection spreading on the assembly line, including deep-cleaning regimens, physical distancing protocols, mandating the use of masks and employee temperature checks.
At BMW's roughly 11,000-employee factory in South Carolina, workflows and layouts were modified and lunch schedules staggered to keep workers from clustering. Face masks are required for employees who cannot stay at least 6 feet apart from other workers.
However, all that might not be enough as the risk of employees getting infected outside the factory gates—where employers cannot enforce mask-wearing and physical distancing—remains a reality.
Toyota has reinforced to its U.S. factory employees that safety measures they observe on the job should also be followed outside of work. The company introduced the slogan "Safe Anywhere" to urge employees to remain vigilant.
"Once people leave the plant and leave the gates, it becomes hit or miss," Norm Bafunno, vice president of manufacturing for Toyota's North American operations, told Reuters.
Toyota said about 40 factory workers have tested positive for COVID-19 since the auto maker began reopening its North American plants.
Despite the 14 COVID-19 cases, production at BMW's South Carolina factory—a global production hub for the auto maker—continues. About 70 percent of production volume is exported to about 125 markets worldwide, China being the biggest. BMW did not say when the employees contracted the virus or where in the plant they worked.
"Each case is unrelated to the other and all affected associates have been placed in quarantine," a company spokesman said.