Feds recommend auto sales be listed as an essential service

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — The federal government is recommending that auto sales be deemed an essential during the coronavirus pandemic, a move that would contradict an executive order signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that prohibits in-person car sales. 

Michigan auto dealerships will be allowed to make online sales during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state had been one of only four that banned all sales of new vehicles.

Updated guidance released Friday by the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency states "workers critical to the manufacturing, distribution, sales, rental, leasing, repair, and maintenance of vehicles and other transportation equipment (including electric vehicle charging stations) and the supply chains that enable these operations to facilitate continuity of travel-related operations for essential workers" should be essential. 

The guidance from the Trump administration, issued one day after the White House coronavirus task force detailed reopening guidelines for states, says the list of recommendations "is advisory in nature. It is not, nor should it be considered, a federal directive or standard."

The new guidelines come as states, including Michigan, prepare protocols to begin reopening state economies essentially shut down to battle the coronavirus pandemic stretching from Asia and Europe to North America. 

Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Whitmer, said the governor is prioritizing public health until the coronavirus pandemic subsidies. 

"While manufacturing is an important sector of the state’s economy, any sector’s resumption in any region of the state must be carefully weighed by the public health risk present and their ability to protect its workers and customers," she said. 

In a statement, Christopher Krebs, CISA director, said: “Based on feedback we received, we released version 3.0 of the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers Guidance, which provides clarity around a range of positions needed to support the essential functions laid out in earlier versions.

"As new or evolving challenges emerge, we are looking at what kind of access, personal protective equipment, and other resources workers need to continue performing essential duties in a safe and healthy way," Krebs said. 

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“This guidance is not a federal mandate, and final decisions remain with state and local officials, who must determine how to balance public health and safety with the need to maintain critical infrastructure in their communities,” Krebs continued. “As the Nation’s response to COVID-19 continues to evolve, CISA will work with our partners across government and industry to update this list as needed." 

Previous versions of the guidance limited the recommendations regarding car dealership employees. Only repair workers were deemed essential personnel.

The Democratic governor loosened her initial executive order to allow Michigan auto dealerships to make online sales during the COVID-19 pandemic. The new order, which extended the state's stay-at-home order to April 30 from the original date of April 13, accepts that vehicle sales and leasing are essential activities and can be conducted remotely and electronically.

Although they still cannot open their showrooms for in-person sales, it was good news for Michigan dealerships that went dark with the original March 24 order.

Whitmer's second order specifically states that workers are deemed essential "at motor vehicle dealerships who are necessary to facilitate remote and electronic sales or leases, or to deliver motor vehicles to customers, provided that showrooms remain closed to in-person traffic."

Michigan had been one of only four states — including Hawaii, Pennsylvania and Kentucky — to ban all auto sales. 

Overall, 24 states (accounting for 44% of U.S. sales in 2019) allow for dealership sales operations to remain open. Another 23 states have restricted sales to online. 

Marc Cannon, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for communications and public policy of AutoNation, a Florida-based car retail chain that has locations in 15 states — none in Michigan — said auto sales should have always been deemed essential. 

"You have to think about what's needed in a time like this," he said. "Not only does our service department provide service, but so does our sales department. And not just for essential personnel, but also for people who work in grocery stores. 

"We have people coming in who say 'look, I was taking public transportation this way, but now I need a vehicle, and I need a dependable vehicle,'" Cannon continued. "There's a real need." 


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Twitter: @Keith_Laing