At one point, about 50 of Empire Automotive's 800 employees had COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
"Every day I came in, for days in a row, I had multiple people sick," Brown said. "And that's when I said, 'Forget it. Shut it down.' "
With the stores closed, some staffers chose to go on unemployment, Brown said. Empire continued to cover all employee benefits.
Other employees worked remotely to help run a skeleton operation fielding calls from customers who had questions. Soon it became clear that people in the community just needed help. Brown and other dealership group managers started mulling how they could pitch in.
"We got nothing else to do," he recalled of that time. "We're certainly not going to sell any cars right now."
A toll-free help line was born using an 800 number the dealership group had. The retailer sent email blasts to its customer base and ran public service announcements in Newsday and on a couple of local radio stations. The message: Empire is here to help — just call the number.
Employees then used vehicles from the dealerships' lots to run errands ranging from pharmacy pickups to grocery store runs. It did not matter whether the person calling was an Empire customer. The service was available to anyone on Long Island.
"People were so appreciative," Brown said.
Empire fielded "a lot" of emails and calls, mostly about basic errands, he said, adding that he didn't keep track of the number of tasks completed by dealership employees.
Brown's favorite request involved an older couple who called about landscaping. They wanted bark mulch picked up for their yard, so Empire employees transported the mulch. Upon delivery, employees noted that the couple might not be able to do the landscaping themselves.
"We spread it around for them, some of our guys had some laughs with them and that was it," Brown said. "It was great."
For Empire's employees, the effort was voluntary. But more people raised their hands to help than were needed, Brown said.
In addition to the help line, the dealership group reached out to the Northwell Health network to ask how it might offer assistance. Empire employees ended up delivering thousands of bottles of water to each of the network's hospitals in the Long Island area.
As the spring wore on, the situation began to improve in New York. By May, Empire Auto Group was open by appointment only. Showrooms reopened in June, and employees gradually returned to work as business picked up. The company stopped offering the help line in June after it was fully back in business.
Empire, which annually sells about 12,000 new and 6,000 used vehicles, has seen a full sales recovery, Brown said. It's a remarkable turnaround in what has been one of the hardest-hit parts of the country and the world.
According to Johns Hopkins University, New York state led the U.S. in deaths from COVID-19, with 32,797 as of Wednesday, Aug. 12. New York City accounted for 23,602 of those deaths and had 228,729 confirmed cases of the virus.
Brown commended dealerships that were able to sell vehicles remotely during the height of the pandemic but said it didn't make sense for his stores.
"We were just at a different point where we were so decimated," he said. "No one wanted to talk about selling a car. People were talking about surviving."