Home » MBJ FEATURE » Mississippi auto sellers dealing with ‘moving target’ of spreading virus

Mississippi auto sellers dealing with ‘moving target’ of spreading virus

Tim Adams, new vehicle sales manager for Herrin-Gear Toyota, gets a breath of fresh air.
— Photo by Jack Weatherly

By JACK WEATHERLY

Auto dealerships have been declared an essential business by Gov. Tate Reeves.

But that does not mean they are getting a free ride.

In fact, their road is getting bumpier as the potentially fatal corona virus pandemic spreads across all 50 states, and the rest of the world.

CarMax, the nation’s largest used-car dealer, has temporarily shut down or put on appointment-only status about half of its 200-plus stores.

The three CarMax dealerships in Mississippi — in Jackson, Tupelo and Gulfport — are open and offering full services, a company spokesman said Wednesday.

Dealerships in general across the state are taking precautions by offering appointments and delivery of vehicles, according to Marty Milstead, president of the Mississippi Auto Dealers Association, which has 174 members, employing approximately 9,000.

At least one member dealer has temporarily succumbed to the pandemic. Allen Toyota of Gulfport closed on March 23 and says on its website that it plans to reopen Friday, April 3, on an appointments basis.

Jonathan Allen says on the dealer’s website that the closure was “in response to COVID-19.”

A source with knowledge of that closure said it was because many of its employees live in the New Orleans area, which has seen nearly roughly half of Louisiana’s nearly 250 deaths from the virus.

Due to the expanding nature of the outbreak, plans announced by automakers to deal with it are subject to change.

Toyota suspended production at its Blue Springs, Miss., plant on March 23, with plans to resume work on Monday, April 6, after one of its workers contracted the virus, but that date has been extended to April 20, according to spokesperson Kathryn Ragsdale.

Ragsdale said Wednesday that there have been no other COVID-19 cases confirmed among the Blue Springs plant work force, which numbers about 2,000.

Nissan, which employs more than 5,000 at Canton, has not announced a change of plans to end its work stoppage on Monday.

The so-called “Big Three,” Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler, halted production and set dates for resumption of work, only to have to extend the restart dates.

Milstead said that dealers, likewise, are dealing with “a moving target,” and are making plans as things change.

All it takes is one confirmed case of COVID-19 to change everything for a dealer, or for any business.

Association members had to be reassured Tuesday, the day that the governor declared a lockdown for Lauderdale County, whose seat is Meridian, one of the most-populous cities in the state.

There were no shutdowns of the dealers, Milstead said, thanks to the governor’s executive order, issued March 24, protecting “automotive sales and repair” as one of a lengthy list of businesses being essential to the state economy.

Reeves extended that lockdown, or stay-at-home order, to the entire state on Wednesday, beginning Friday, April 3, at 5 p.m. and scheduled to end on April 20 at 8 a.m.

Tim Adams, new-car manager at Herrin-Gear Toyota in Jackson, said in an interview on Tuesday that sales were “definitely moving at a slower pace.” Tightened credit from lenders has made things tougher, he noted.

Most Herrin-Gear customers are being accommodated by appointments, and the dealer is offering shuttle service, he said. Sales personnel work strictly on a voluntary basis, he added.

David Hall, general sales manager, said staffing is about half of normal.

Automakers are offering incentives to overcome financing obstacles, Hall noted, including 90-day deferral on monthly payments and zero-interest financing.

Defending the essential-business designation, Milstead observed that, unlike many businesses, dealerships “can’t be run from home.”

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About Jack Weatherly