LOS ANGELES — Dealership showrooms began opening in Los Angeles County on Friday and are poised to reopen across the rest of California, the nation's biggest new-vehicle market, after state and local officials eased some of the country's strictest rules to counter the coronavirus outbreak.
After permitting only online sales for the past several weeks, the new rules outlined by Los Angeles County officials allow explicitly for the opening of "car dealer showrooms (open for sales with adherence to distancing and infection control protocols)," with a 5-page list of health and safety protocols published Friday by the public health department.
Come Monday, the entire state should be open to in-store auto sales, with the city of Fresno setting the day for relaxed rules and six counties in the Bay Area this week permitting the reopening of businesses that are primarily located outdoors, according to the California New Car Dealers Association.
"Effective no later than Monday, every dealer [in California] is going to be able to sell vehicles at their location," said Brian Maas, head of the state's dealer association. Dealers in the city and county of Los Angeles were only waiting for the protocols, published Friday, to reopen showrooms.
The protocols are no small matter, Maas noted. Test drives have to be done by the customer alone, although a dealership employee can follow. There are multiple rules to keep customers and staff six feet apart. Customers cannot use employee bathrooms.
"There's lots of things dealers have to make sure to comply with," Maas said.
Still, the measures allow new-vehicle shopping and sales to resume in key markets: California generated 1.9 million new-vehicle sales last year. Los Angeles and Orange counties combined comprise the biggest regional market in the state, with just over 657,000 new-vehicle registrations last year.
"It's obviously a bit of a return to normalcy," Maas said. Allowing dealers to do business locally also means customers don't have to drive to less-stringent counties as they have been.
According to a J.D. Power estimate, sales in the Los Angeles region fell 37 percent compared with its pre-virus forecast for the week ending May 3. Nationally, sales dropped 31 percent in the same period and some markets such as Dallas were nearly flat, meaning sales had fully recovered to the pre-virus forecast.
"It's a huge relief," said Beau Boeckmann, president and COO of Galpin Motors in North Hills, Calif., which includes Galpin Ford, the nation's biggest-selling Ford dealership. "Today's a big day for us," Boeckmann said in an interview Friday. "We've got some customers here now, which is exciting."
Service departments were already allowed to operate, and online sales were permitted, but showrooms had been off limits, Boeckmann said.
On Thursday, California published new operating guidelines for dealerships.
For example, the state said face coverings are "strongly recommended" for dealership employees "when employees are in the vicinity of others." Dealerships should also take "reasonable measures to remind the public that they should use face coverings," the guidance said.
Boeckmann said his dealerships are practicing social distancing, and placing plastic barriers between work stations where there's not enough room. He said the dealerships would provide customers with free masks if they don't have their own already.
"We see it's going to be like this for a period of time," he added.
Jim Henry contributed to this report.