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Planning and Responding to the COVID-19 Outbreak

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Matt Thornton was taken aback in mid-March, following President Donald Trump's declaration of a national emergency in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. All of a sudden, the longtime Idaho shop owner recalled the last national recession.

“To me, it feels like 2008, when the economy crashed,” says Thornton, who, for 21 years has owned Park Royal Body Works in Boise, Idaho. “We survived that … but barely.” 

Yes, uncertain times are ahead for business owners throughout the nation, not to mention collision repair shop operators. 

“We had a meeting and just talked about what the government’s doing, and what we’re going to do a little different,” says Thornton, who oversees a nearly $3-mllion-per-year shop. 

“It’s gonna be a bumpy ride for a month or two.” 

Many close to the situation agree: in uncertain times like this, body shop owners need specific procedures in place in order to ease the minds of customers and employees. 

Reassuring Customers   

Thornton is one shop owner that’s taking a proactive approach. His initial steps in the wake of of the coronavirus outbreak were to utilize the following measures at his business: 

  • Post signs on employee bathrooms, instructing them to wash their hands thoroughly and frequently
  • Purchase additional cleaning supplies such as PineSole and ample hand sanitizer 
  • Make a Facebook post assuring the public that his shop remains open and is taking extra steps to clean vehicles. 
  • Have employees wipe down any part of the vehicle they touched during the repair process, be it a door handle, steering wheel, or seat adjuster.

“We also have our CSR in the front office cleaning things throughout the day,” Thornton notes. “She goes around and wipes down all the doorknobs, coffee-maker, microwave, anything that anyone touches during the day.”

Reassuring Employees   

Bernard Swiecki, assistant director for business groups at the Center for Automotive Research, says that shop owners need to thoroughly inform and update staff members about what their plan is during a virtual national panic. In an environment where people are all touching the same equipment and in close proximity, there needs to be an open discussion about what’s happening, he says.

Thornton has reacted to the Coronavirus uncertainty by ensuring his 13 employees that he’ll provide them with a steady paycheck for as long as he possibly can. 

 “We might cut back,” the Idaho shop owner acknowledges. “The work has been slow because we had such a mild winter, anyway. So, we may cut some hours back and split the staff up and work partial schedules if it gets really bad. 

“If we get really slow-going workwise, then we’ll just take turns taking days off, so everybody gets at least a partial paycheck.” 

Industry Impact 

Beyond being concerned for others’ health, many business owners are finding themselves in a panic about what the outcome of the coronavirus outbreak will mean. The parts supply, especially, is of concern to some. Swiecki says that he’s heard some companies are tripling the time that they expect something to arrive. And, because of this, many are stocking extra inventory. 

Because the effects and impacts of the coronavirus on companies have been widely publicized, unlike other events (like the 2011 tsunami in Japan, Swiecki says), customers are largely understanding.  

For his part, Thornton says he’ll call upon the lessons learned in the wake of the 2008 recession when this current national panic nears its conclusion. 

“The lesson is to manage your money a little more conservatively,” says the industry veteran.

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