By Lindsay VanHulle, Melissa Burden and Jackie Charniga
Masks and gloves and hand sanitizer. One customer inside at a time. Tape and plexiglass to keep a 6-foot distance.
This is what visiting a dealership during the coronavirus pandemic looks like.
At Prime Automotive Group, with 56 dealerships in eight states, most sales are by appointment only, though the retailer was able to reopen showrooms in Maine on Friday, May 1. Employees have placed tape on the floor and moved furniture in waiting areas. They wear masks and gloves and prioritize cleaning surfaces.
Aside from maintaining social distancing and cleaning and sanitizing surfaces and vehicles, dealership executives and consultants recommend these strategies as stores prepare to reopen showrooms for in-person visits.
- Stagger employee shifts and start times to limit contact through the door.
- Greet customers outside when possible and have them wait in their vehicles.
- Allow customers to take solo test drives.
- Use EPA-approved disinfectants and keep safety sheets on hand to record new chemicals used in the workplace.
- Form a task force to determine safety steps in the event of a positive COVID-19 case, including Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements.
- Leave empty bays between service technicians.
- Remind employees about hand washing and place posters around the dealership promoting hand washing.
- Adopt service pickup and delivery processes.
- Minimize shared contact with keys, pens, credit cards and other objects.
Practices such as these may become standard in dealerships across the U.S. as states begin to resume economic activity after weeks of the virus-induced shutdown — first, in stores where physical sales have been allowed in some capacity as COVID-19 spread across the country, followed by dealerships in places where showroom doors remain locked to walk-in traffic.
The National Automobile Dealers Association and state counterparts are recommending precautions dealerships should take as governments ease restrictions, drawing on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Yet even with best practices to guide the industry, “this is not a cookie-cutter situation,” Prime Automotive CEO Todd Skelton told Automotive News. “Every store is going to be a little different, and every region is going to be a little different, in terms of who comes to work.”
Calls to reopen the economy are amplifying across the country, as restrictions on activity stretch into a third month. Governors face mounting political pressure in some states to remove limits on person-to-person interaction meant to slow transmission of the coronavirus and to allow businesses to resume operations to mitigate economic damage caused by the shutdowns.
Some governors — particularly in states hit hard by COVID-19, such as New York and Michigan — say they are working on strategies to safeguard public health by not easing restrictions too much, too soon. Others, such as in Georgia, Texas and Florida, have taken more steps to allow some businesses to reopen. The virus continues to spread amid shutdowns, as the U.S. last week surpassed 1 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the CDC.
Dealerships “don’t know when they’re going to be told they can go back to doing business in any kind of normal manner,” said Mark Rogers, a consultant for NADA, who helped prepare guidance for dealerships operating during the pandemic. “They’re planning for different scenarios because they want to be ready for whatever is offered to them.”
Not just ‘flipping a few switches’
Brian Maas, president of the California New Car Dealers Association, said reopening isn’t as simple as “flipping a few switches and we’re back to normal.”
The association prepared a six-page playbook for its 1,200-plus franchised dealership members. Protocols include a designated task force leader to oversee a store’s plan, staggered employee scheduling and work-from-home arrangements, employee health screenings, face coverings, facility layout changes, employee training and signage.
No set expiration date exists for a statewide stay-home order, and some local governments have set separate restrictions on sales. The California association last week notified its members of a revised shelter-in-place order for the San Francisco Bay Area, effective Monday, May 4, that will allow many dealerships to sell vehicles in person to customers — but only in outside spaces and with social distancing measures.
Pre-owned salesman Shane Welter helps customers with their vehicle last week at Park Place Lexus in Grapevine, Texas. The dealership group has new safety policies to deal with COVID-19. “We’re putting tents at all of our stores. [The order says] any outdoor sales. So I don’t think there should be anything stopping us if we put tables and chairs under a tent outside,” said Inder Dosanjh, dealer principal at Dosanjh Family Auto Group, with 17 dealerships and more than 1,000 employees in the Bay Area.
In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order was set to expire Monday, May 4, though the governor last week extended it for two more weeks, until May 18, while allowing some retailers to resume curbside service.
Dealerships in Minnesota have been allowed to sell vehicles by appointment, said Scott Lambert, president of the Minnesota Automobile Dealers Association. That means they have had practice deploying social distancing and cleaning processes that will be ready once walk-in sales resume, Lambert said.
“Everyone is making a genuine effort to practice social distancing,” he said. “You’ve got to have respect for what your customers want to see when they walk in, and they don’t want to see anybody taking your health concerns cavalierly.”
Customers have responded positively to the steps Grappone Automotive Group in Bow, N.H., has taken during the pandemic, said Amanda Grappone Osmer, the group’s director of corporate potential, who oversees marketing and communications, community outreach and leadership development.
Grappone, with four stores, posted videos on its website depicting its social distancing and cleaning practices while it continued to operate as an essential service.
Grappone installed tape on the dealerships’ floors, installed plexiglass shields and split employees into two teams to encourage distancing. Running two teams also means if an employee is exposed to COVID-19, the entire staff isn’t at risk, Osmer said.
“There are the logistical things that you can do to make people feel like, yes, you’re taking this seriously,” she said. “But overall, just keep an open dialogue with your team. Find out what is it they need, because if you take care of them, they’ll take care of the guests.”
In Massachusetts, where the majority of Prime’s stores are located, Skelton said dealerships can have only one customer in the showroom at a time, by appointment only, with customers arriving 30 minutes apart.
For the past four weeks or so, Prime has used “mystery shoppers” — employees from other Prime stores — to visit dealerships and report on what they witnessed. In some cases, dealerships needed more masks or gloves for workers, and employees needed to be encouraged to remind customers to keep their distance while in the store.
Employee testing possible
At Park Place Dealerships in Texas, employees are required to check their temperatures at home every morning, said COO Tony Carimi, who is in charge of COVID-19 policies for the group. Designated safety captains record temperatures for a second time when employees arrive at work. Breaks and lunches are staggered. Shared food and drink are suspended.
The 12-store group locked showroom doors from late March through mid-April, open for sales appointments only, until the federal government added auto sales to its list of essential services during the pandemic, Carimi said.
“What we chose to do was go with the strictest requirements and implement that at all of our locations,” he said.
That hasn’t included testing employees for COVID-19, though Carimi said it’s on the radar “if and when” the supply of tests increases.
Taseer Badar, CEO of Houston-based wealth management firm ZT Corporate, is offering voluntary COVID-19 testing to his 1,500 employees — including nearly 350 at dealership group ZT Motors, which operates five franchises in Florida and Georgia. The testing cost could be in the six figures, he said, depending on how many employees are tested.
Badar said he anticipates between a third and half of employees will choose to be tested. He said he has received no positive results to date; he won’t be notified of individual results or of which employees were tested because of medical privacy laws. Badar is looking to expand the effort to eventually test employees for COVID-19 antibodies, which would indicate whether someone has had the virus.
“Testing is the key to getting back [to opening] the economy,” Badar said.
Yet not every dealership will be ready to reopen soon, even if given the green light by the state in which it operates. Julie Walker, president of Fairlane Ford in Dearborn, Mich., said she closed her sales and service departments in late March. Service reopened Monday, April 27, to appointments only. Remote sales are expected to resume Monday, May 4, also by appointment.
No customers will be allowed inside the dealership’s buildings for the foreseeable future. When that changes will depend on when the dealership has enough personal protective equipment for employees and customers, she said. “It will be up to me when I decide when I want to invite people back,” Walker said.