Michael Wright sprays down every set of car keys that changes hands in Los Angeles’s RM Automotives with disinfectant. He installed germ-catching plastic panes in front of the cash register, keeps disposable gloves behind the counter, and purifies the store with a mist of sanitizer every couple of hours. When a customer arrives with a yellow engine light, he and his team wipe down the interior of the car from front to back before popping the hood. These are the protocols of an average auto repair shop during the Covid-19 pandemic. Wright, 52, has been working on cars for decades. Now he’s also required to be a public health expert.
The state of California categorized auto shops as essential businesses in March, and throughout the pandemic, Wright never closed his doors. He hosted weekly meetings with his employees to go over the social distancing measures that RM Automotives was implementing, and ordered loads of cleaning supplies to keep the location eternally fumigated. But for the most part, the early days of the coronavirus were marked by the doldrums. Nobody was going to work, so nobody needed to fix their car. Los Angeles was disconcertingly still. The staff worked on the few cars that remained in the shop from the Before Times, and waited to see what the world had in store.
By summer, says Wright, RM Automotives is back to capacity. People no longer fear leaving their houses; they have places to go, and some of them need to replace their air filter. It’s a strange respite for the employees. They are happy that the future of their jobs is no longer in question, but the threat of a second wave looms on the horizon. Who knows what may happen if we return to phase one lockdowns? California isn’t out of the woods yet. Wright and I spoke about that, as well the difficulties of sourcing hand sanitizer in March, and what it was like to fix up the cars of doctors and nurses in the middle of the crisis.
When did the pandemic begin to affect your business?
It was on March 12, when Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the stay-at-home order in Los Angeles. The next day things got really quiet, and the following week the streets were super empty. There was nobody making phone calls, nobody driving, nobody doing anything. That’s when we noticed a huge dropoff.
Were you still going into work during that time?
I kept the business open this whole time. The whole month of March and April we did about 50 percent of business. I was trying to ride it out, and I started talking to the employees about alternating days off to stay afloat. Then we started to see the protocols for essential businesses, and auto repair shops were going to be able to stick around. After that, my focus went to keeping customers and employees safe.
What was that like for you emotionally, to know that the future of your business was in flux?
It’s an uneasy feeling. You’re used to a certain number of clients, seeing their faces everyday. And all of a sudden, everything stops. I’m in a pretty busy area, so seeing the streets go dead, it was pretty scary.
Has business rebounded since then?
April and May were terrible. June, July, and August have been pretty much back to normal. I think people delayed a lot of the more minor services they needed. The only people I serviced in spring were nurses and first responder-type people. Because they were the only people still working. And when they came in, it was always an emergency — their battery died, and they needed transportation.
Did that make you feel like you were aiding the pandemic response, considering how many first responders you were helping?
Absolutely. I was so focused on trying to keep the business going, to take care of my customers and my employees, when it was really tough for everyone.
Did you always think the business was going to pull through, or did you ever have any doubts?
I always thought it would. I was in front of it pretty quick. I knew it would pull through, and I knew that some businesses wouldn’t. If it had gone past the first couple months, then I would’ve gotten nervous. But by the summer, and things came back to normal, I felt pretty good about it.
I imagine you guys had to stock up on hand sanitizers and other cleaning supplies during the spring. How challenging was it to source that stuff?
I belong to a trade organization, the Automotive Service Councils of California, that set me up with a company that was selling the hand sanitizer, because I couldn’t find that anywhere. I was scrambling, because normal channels like the grocery stores didn’t have anything. That trade organization gave me some other stuff I put in a spray bottle to hit customer’s keys, and everything else around the store.
What were some of the challenges unique to auto shops, that other stores might not have needed to think about as much?
The thing that we’re still thinking about today is how at risk we are to contract Covid-19 through the cars themselves. We have to think about sanitation before we start working on a car and afterward. We were making sure that every car that comes in is cleaned, and that it’s cleaned after we’re done. There’s an added expense to that, too. I’ve gone through cleaners, sanitizers, and gloves. I bought acrylic plastic barriers for where we have conversations with the customers. We do all of the cleaning ourselves. It’s just part of the business, now.
How much instruction were you given from the California government on how to keep yourselves safe while remaining open?
I’d read the media, I’d watch the press conferences, but there wasn’t much that was set in stone. I went to the City of LA website, and I got information there on how to proceed with business in the way that they wanted it done. But I took the initiative to implement all of those measures on my own, because I didn’t want anyone to get sick. It wasn’t laid out as clear as I thought it could be. There was information from third-party sources that I just kinda went with. It could’ve been more organized.
What sort of questions were your workers asking you?
I had weekly meetings where I’d sit down and say, “This is how we’re going to do it.” I wanted to get in front of it as best I could, and I never had any employees who were especially concerned about their safety. I made sure that their health was the top priority, before anything else. Nobody ever came to me and said, “I don’t feel comfortable with this or that.” I tried to make it as easy as I could for them.
Some auto shops are offering services where the client doesn’t even leave the car while their oil gets changed. Have you done anything like that?
We’ve had a lot of people show up where they park the car outside and leave their key in the car. They go home with a friend that came with them. Then I call them on the phone and tell them the repairs they need. We get authorization, they pay over the phone, and we do the work. We also provided pickup-and-dropoff services, because a lot of people didn’t want to leave their house. So, they didn’t have contact with anyone outside of their bubble.
There’s still a lot of worry about a potential second wave, and a return to stringent lockdowns. Do you think about that?
I do think about that. If there’s a new flood of cases and we’re back to where we were in April and May, that’s a concern. Things are going good right now. I’m keeping my name out there and getting new customers, we’re doing our best. But even for the protocols we have right now to keep the cars safe and the employees safe, how much longer are we going to do that for? Until we get a vaccine, I guess.