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?
Amid the COVID-19 epidemic, many jurisdictions are ordering residents to stay home, nonessential businesses to shut down or both. Cities from Dallas to St. Louis are joining a growing list of states — California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, and probably more by the time you read this — to implement such orders.
So, can you buy a car or not? 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 (more recently dubbed “stay-at-home”) orders in effect across various cities, counties or states, a trip to the local auto mall may seem extraneous. Indeed, Illinois’ stay-at-home order allows residents to leave under only a few circumstances, among them tasks “essential to their health and safety, or to the health and safety of their family or household members,” or “to obtain necessary services or supplies for themselves and their family or household members.”
Such language is similar to orders in other jurisdictions, and it begs the question: Does car shopping violate that? It depends, but one clue involves whether the state specifically bars the operation of vehicle showrooms in light of COVID-19 — an issue we’ll tackle next.
That said, 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.
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 on March 20 that 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, but later in the day emailed to confirm that Pennsylvania stores are, indeed, closing for sales.
Varying Interpretations by State
Pennsylvania isn’t the only state to single out showrooms. Delaware, Kentucky and New Jersey have all clarified that car dealerships constitute essential businesses only to maintain and repair vehicles, while showrooms must close.
Other states have varying degrees of language that leave room for interpretation. Orders from cities (see Dallas and St. Louis) to states (see Ohio and Illinois) have language to exempt gas stations, vehicle repair shops and “related facilities” from mandatory closures. The extra provision is key, as it’s absent in the context of exempted auto-repair shops in, say, the orders from California, Massachusetts and New York.
Interpretations vary for “related facilities” or the language as a whole. Illinois’ department of commerce issued a memo to specify that dealerships “can remain open for repair services” but car sales may operate only by appointment. Showrooms “must remain closed,” the memo said.
California’s New Car Dealers Association notes that some jurisdictions within the state explicitly prohibit auto sales. But in a memo posted online, the group’s legal counsel says it believes that if the statewide order “were interpreted to prohibit car sales under any circumstances, that would seem to be an overly restrictive reading of the directive.”
That said, such interpretations “would not support a dealer who wanted to continue with open, traditional in-person sales departments,” the memo continued. “Dealers should understand that they are taking a risk by keeping any sales open when this activity is not actually listed as an essential service. … The more dealers can step up online sales or remote deliveries to eliminate or minimize any face-to-face interactions, the easier it will be to justify continuing sales activities.”
Different dealerships have taken different tacks. 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 remained open, at least for the time being.
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 March 20. “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 the same day 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 they were looking into the matter, especially as it pertained to the 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.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated March 23, 2020, with the latest information about state and dealer responses related to COVID-19.
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