Can I Buy a Car Under a Coronavirus Shelter-in-Place Order or Business Closures?
Amid the COVID-19 epidemic, many jurisdictions are ordering residents to stay home, nonessential businesses to shut down or both. Municipalities large and small — from one Chicago suburb to Greater San Francisco — have issued so-called “shelter-in-place” orders that require residents to stay home except to participate in certain activities, including work at businesses deemed essential. Effective March 18, the governor of Pennsylvania ordered “all non-life-sustaining businesses” to close their physical locations. A day later, California ordered the state’s roughly 40 million residents to stay home except for certain activities; today, New York’s governor mandated nonessential businesses reliant on in-office personnel decrease such workforce by three-quarters.
Related: Coronavirus and Car Buying: What You Should Know
Car shoppers, and particularly those who need a car — say their lease is up, or their current car gets totaled — will no doubt wonder: If you’re in an area that’s ordering nonessential businesses to close or residents to stay home, can you still buy a car?
The short answer: It depends where you live, and — at least for right now — whatever action your local dealership has decided to take.
Can You Leave the House to Go Car Shopping?
This is a thorny subject. With shelter-in-place orders in effect across various cities, counties or states, a trip to the local auto mall may seem extraneous. Indeed, a new shelter-in-place order for Oak Park, Ill. — just 9 miles west of Cars.com’s Chicago headquarters — allows residents to leave under only a few circumstances, among them tasks “essential to [the] health and safety … [of] family or household members,” or “to obtain necessary services or supplies for themselves and their family or household members.”
Car shopping would seem to violate that, but such policies are evolving in real time across the country, so check with your jurisdiction for details. The good news? Much of the shopping process can still occur from home.
Still, that doesn’t clear up a related concern: whether dealers will remain open.
Are Dealers Even Open?
In a March 17 letter to President Donald Trump, trade groups representing automakers and their dealers requested that jurisdictions consider the nation’s showrooms and service bays essential operations under coronavirus-related closures. As of right now, it’s unclear how many jurisdictions have obliged. In a March 19 memo, the Department of Homeland Security identified more than a dozen sectors as “essential critical infrastructure” during COVID-19, including jobs like doctors, firefighters and grocers. DHS’ list includes “automotive repair and maintenance facilities” but not the selling arm of dealerships — in other words, showrooms.
Pennsylvania’s order added some clarity. Under a five-page list of life-sustaining businesses, the state tagged vehicle repair and maintenance facilities, as well as stores that sell auto parts, tires and vehicle accessories, under a list of those that may continue physical operations. Automobile dealers, however, were under a list of mandatory closures. Indeed, the Pennsylvania Automotive Association, a dealer group, said in a March 19 update that dealers’ service operations may remain open, but the sales portions may not. PAA didn’t immediately respond to Cars.com’s inquiries, but the association’s website said it’s “looking to get further clarification regarding internet sales and delivery.”
Representatives at three Pennsylvania dealerships told Cars.com their sales departments were either shuttered or planned to stop shortly. Asked if they could sell vehicles remotely, two representatives said they didn’t fully know, while a third — at a Chevrolet dealer — pointed us to the online sales portal for Chevrolet parent GM but said his dealership couldn’t deliver the vehicle until the sales floor reopened.
That’s not to say you can’t buy a car some other way in Pennsylvania or that the California order imposes the same restrictions. We reached out to seven major automakers as to the guidance they’re giving their dealers. Confusion abounds: Even as PAA cautions dealerships to close their sales floors, Nissan spokeswoman Jeannie Whited told us the state has clarified that “service departments may remain open, and sales must close by 8 p.m. each night.” Asked to reconcile that with PAA’s guidance, Whited did not immediately respond.
Auto Sales ‘Not Listed as Critical’
California is another can of worms. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order, signed March 19, notes DHS’ critical infrastructure sectors that may continue their work, but confusion has ensued over whether that includes automobile sales. A Toyota dealership in San Francisco posted online that it would close its showrooms from March 16 to April 7, though its sales department would staff phone and online responses. But representatives at other dealers — a Ford store in the Bay Area and a Chevrolet dealer in Los Angeles — told Cars.com the morning of March 20 that their showrooms remain open, at least for now.
Guidance released last night by the California New Car Dealers Association after the state’s order noted that the edict “incorporates federal guidance to determine whether a specific business or industry should close,” according to CNCDA spokeswoman Jenny Dudikoff. “This guidance states that ‘automotive repair and maintenance facilities’ are critical … [but] ‘auto sales’ is not listed as critical. The statewide order also does not specifically state whether it overrides conflicting local orders.”
Asked if that meant CNCDA was telling dealers to close their showrooms, Dudikoff didn’t immediately respond. But Jared Allen, vice president of communications for the National Automobile Dealers Association, acknowledged the lack of clarity.
“There’s obviously questions about what dealers are being advised to do, and those are questions that — at this point — I don’t think have crystal-clear answers,” Allen told Cars.com this morning. “I believe in California, at this point, there is obviously an effort to get clarity, but I think you’re seeing dealerships act on the side of erring on the side of caution here, for at least the time being, interpreting the state directives in the most conservative way.”
Honda told us this morning that it’s “interpreted the California guidance to include our operations as ‘essential business,’ and are thus staying open to provide needed services to our customers.” Other automakers told us this morning they’re looking into the matter, especially as it pertains to lthe California order.
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‘Vital’ Need for Sales
The need for a vehicle sales channel, at least in some capacity, goes beyond consumers shopping on a whim. NADA’s Allen pointed to owners whose leases are up soon. Indeed, J.D. Power reports 1.8 million leases will end between March and July.
“What are those customers supposed to do?” Allen said.
And the needs don’t end there.
“Imagine a scenario of a medical professional that needs to get from home to work and gets in a car accident and totals the vehicle,” he continued. “What is that person supposed to do if there’s zero capacity to obtain a replacement vehicle in their area?”
Dealers “are not asking for business as usual,” Allen said. “It’s not business as usual. We get that. Between showroom traffic being down significantly and the social distancing practices that dealership employees need to be engaging in the dealership anyway, it’s not as if there’s a need to be fully staffed. It’s not as if they can be fully staffed. But we think it’s important to — we think it’s vital to have a way to keep the lights on.”
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