Some dealers are one bad month away from landing in financial jeopardy, and most aren't prepared to pay their employees during a shutdown, said Cory Mosley, an auto retail and crisis management consultant.
"People lose sight of the fact that dealers are small businesses," he said. "They think they are the billion-dollar car dealer, and many of them are not."
Jeff Forman, pre-owned sales consultant at Bob Jeannotte Buick-GMC in Plymouth, Mich., has reported to work as usual. But every day, he worries about catching the virus.
"I can see possibly if service has to be open because of somebody breaking down or needing to have repairs," Forman said, but dealers shouldn't keep their showrooms open just "to generate a buck."
The store has taken extra precautions to prevent spread of the virus, such as limiting lunchroom capacity to four people, deep cleaning and ensuring all employees have hand sanitizer. But Forman is 60 and has an underlying health condition. "I feel like I shouldn't even be here. ... Everybody is so uncomfortable and doesn't want to be here," he said.
Sales have declined around 60 percent, he said. From Tuesday through Thursday afternoon last week, the store sold three vehicles, down from its usual 15 to 20.
Sales associates and customers have been careful to stand at least 6 feet apart, a challenge when going through paperwork.
But for the most part, the sales staff is cooped up with little to do. "Everyone is walking around like zombies," Forman said.
Most customers who purchased a vehicle last week had an immediate need because they totaled their car.
Situations like that show the value of dealers, despite the risk, but spending 10 hours at the dealership per day to help that one customer makes little sense, Forman said. Opening for a few hours during weekdays would be sufficient, he said.
"At this point, I just feel that safety is the utmost," he said.