The question was top of mind during the early days of COVID-19: would tire dealerships be classified as essential businesses or not?
While some waited for an answer, Tire Discounters saw an opportunity to educate government officials in its home state of Ohio, including Governor Mike DeWine, who would impose strict stay-at-home orders on March 23.
Working with the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants and the Ohio Tire & Automotive Association, Tire Discounters President and CEO Jamie Ward helped mount a campaign to convince DeWine that tire dealerships and auto service facilities were critical to keeping frontline workers mobile during the pandemic. “My daughter is a nurse,” says Ward. “And it hit home pretty clearly that she needed to get to work.”
Ward and other association members “immediately began talking about how to ensure that our businesses were categorized as essential. We were really concerned that the tire and auto service industry would not be deemed that way.”
On March 19, Ward drafted a letter and sent it to DeWine, along with some supplemental documents.
“Automotive repair is a critical service that is necessary to keep folks on the road and driving safely,” he wrote. “This includes first responders, doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers that we will so heavily reply upon in the coming days.
“The demand for automotive repair – including emergency repairs, such as repair/replacement of tires and brakes – must be met in order to ensure the safety of families venturing out for critical supplies and to keep other essential businesses (grocery stories, pharmacies, etc.) in operation with minimum disruption.
“Our industry also serves government agencies, police and fire departments, ambulance operators and many other organizations critical to our response to the novel coronavirus.
“We believe that automotive repair is a critical service that we owe it to our community to continue to provide. Accordingly, we urge you to consider that automotive repair facilities remain open during any lockdown or shelter-in-place period in order to ensure safe and reliable transportation for those who need it. You will find that other jurisdictions faced with this dilemma have elected to do so.”
Ward says it also was necessary to communicate measures that Tire Discounters and other tire and auto service providers were prepared to take in order to preserve the health and safety of their customers and employees.
“We are ready and willing to work with the state to adjust our hours of operation and/or staffing levels to balance against public health interests,” he wrote. “And we will most definitely continue to strictly follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines related to social distancing, etc., to protect the health of our employees and our customers.
“As a father of a registered nurse in Cincinnati, I truly understand what is coming for us in the weeks ahead, and I know what actions her employer is taking in preparation for the onslaught. Hospital administrators are already preparing her to travel from hospital to hospital all over the state, if needed. I implore you to ensure that my daughter and the other incredible health workers like her can do their jobs safely over the course of the coming months. Lives are depending on it.”
At the same time, Tire Discounters’ management team began researching the potential impact of a tire and auto service industry shutdown.
“Our chief legal officer read every single state legislation as it related to stay-at-home orders. And we began to discuss the steps and services we would put in place – from curbside check-in and pick-up and drop-off to text-to-pay – that would keep customers from congregating inside our showrooms.”
Not knowing if DeWine would declare tire and auto service facilities essential “was scary,” says Ward, who praises the transparency of the governor’s administration during the process.
“We received a lot of feedback on what they were thinking so we were able to really participate.”
Coincidentally underscoring the importance of Tire Discounters’ efforts, the same day that Ward sent his letter to DeWine, a vehicle hauling a trailer full of medical supplies to Tennessee experienced a flat tire near a Tire Discounters location. Technicians from the store helped get it up and running again.
“It proved our case that, ‘Hey, this is serious. We need to be able to keep people on the road.’ I really felt like we were trying to accomplish something bigger than running a dealership. We scrambled but we figured it out.”
(Photo by Steve Ziegelmeyer/Ziegelmeyer Photography)