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Editorial: Quit throttling auto sales

The Detroit News

While we understand the need to protect Michiganians from harm during this pandemic, orders limiting businesses must strike a balance between ensuring safety and preserving our economy. That's certainly true with the auto industry, which is such a driving force in Michigan. 

Out of 39 states with an active "stay at home" order, Michigan is one of five states that has banned all automotive sales, including online orders. That is over the top, and we urge Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to open virtual sales, and dealerships as soon as possible with safety precautions.  

Online shopping should not be among the list of freedoms we surrender in the fight against the coronavirus. And that should include the auto industry, no matter how great the decrease in consumer demand.

Michigan has the third highest number of COVID-19 cases in the nation, so it makes sense that precautions are more stringent here than in other states. But even New York, which has the most cases nationally, has lifted some restrictions to allow its car dealers to sell online.

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New York State Auto Dealer Association President Bob Vancavage in a statement said this was "an enormous win" and that dealers had worked "non-stop to craft an exemption under the essential business guidelines to allow dealers to do what they do best: sell cars."

Whitmer should follow New York’s lead, working with car dealers to craft an exemption for dealerships. 

For their part, Michigan dealers have been honoring the ban and doing what they can to stay active and engage with customers while the ban lasts: 

“We are still actively talking with customers, answering questions and booking appointments for when the governor’s executive order lifts on April 14,” said a representative of Lafontaine Automotive Group.

Not only should they be able to sell online, they should also be allowed to open their shops under strict safety guidelines.

Out of 39 states with an active "stay at home" order, Michigan is one of five states that has banned all automotive sales, including online orders.

This is on the minds of lawmakers, too. House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, says he’d like to see fewer restrictions on auto dealerships and other businesses such as landscaping as long as they could operate safely. 

Across the states, the stay-at-home orders have resulted in a 61% sales decline for dealers, according to J.D. Power’s latest industry impact report. It’s particularly bad in Detroit, where the shelter-in-place order along with a total ban on car sales has contributed to a complete collapse of the market.

It doesn’t need to be that way.

In some markets where auto dealers are allowed to adjust to restrictions and meet the consumers’ needs, J.D. Power witnessed modest week-over-week gains.

If online selling were allowed, J.D. Power estimates sales in Michigan would be off 60-80% instead of 100%. 

No industry will escape the effect of the virus, but we shouldn’t help the pandemic gut the market.

Whitmer’s Stay Home Stay Safe executive order extends through April 13, but in her daily COVID-19 press briefing Monday morning she said she would extend that order if given the chance.

If Whitmer does extend the shelter-in-place order, she should also lift the ban on dealerships.

In a time of unprecedented economic collapse, the governor should take every opportunity to promote safe sales.