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Carwashers address coronavirus concerns

Rich DiPaolo is the Associate Publisher – Editorial of Professional Carwashing & Detailing magazine.

The year widely started off normal in the carwash industry. The first major convention of the year in late January — SCWA 2020 — was well-attended and noted as a success by many of the attendees, planners and exhibitors. While most people were aware of the novel coronavirus at that time, few could have anticipated the eventual impact it would have on most of the world, our country and this industry.

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As of Friday, March 13th, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), worldwide there have been 132,536 confirmed cases, 4,947 deaths and 123 countries, areas or territories have been affected by the coronavirus (COVID-19). The U.S.’s first identified case happened in Washington state on Jan. 21. According to WHO estimates posted this week, there are now over 1,260 confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. and the virus has accounted for over 35 deaths in the country, and these numbers are currently increasing daily.1

As supported by many reputable news outlets, we are currently living in an unprecedented time in the U.S. The travel, hospitality and transportation industries are struggling to keep up with cancelations, refunds and other challenges, including the implementation of stricter cleaning policies. Investors are selling off assets, as seen on Wall Street in recent weeks, as a result of coronavirus concerns and compounded by other factors, such as concerning news from the oil and energy markets.

Like dominos falling one at a time this week, major sporting events, conferences, including The Car Wash Show™ 2020, as well as business meetings and events have all been cancelled, suspended or moved in an attempt to minimize the spread of the virus.

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The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are far-reaching and there are differing opinions of what the short and longer term ramifications will be on society, travel and businesses. U.S. citizens — your customers — across the country are being asked to practice precautionary health measures, such as washing hands regularly, avoiding large crowds, staying home when sick and avoiding direct contact with infected people.

Most businesses are currently being impacted in some way by coronavirus. How have carwashes been affected so far? We reached out to several carwash operators to get an update. Here is what they had to say.

David DuGoff

Owner of College Park Car Wash

Headquartered in College Park, Maryland

Maryland: 12 reported cases2

It may be too soon to tell how it will impact us. We’re just northeast of Washington, D.C., and it is basically shutting down. As a self-serve carwash, we’ll stay open for whatever business there is, and that’s my plan. Who knows, a self-serve wash may be the only entertainment available. Let’s hope that any impacts will be short term.

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Mark J. Curtis

CEO of Splash Car Wash

Headquartered in Greenwich, Connecticut

Connecticut: 1-5 reported cases2

Concerns about the virus have impacted our volume, most notably in towns where there has been a reported case of testing positive to the virus. For instance, in Wilton where one person tested positive for COVID-19, we were down 15% more than the other sites.

Whether or not this will cause short-term or long-term impacts, this is a great question and a difficult one to answer. I do believe the news media has dramatically overhyped the virus and spread undue concern through our population. For instance, 10 people died in the last week from influenza in Connecticut, which is more than have been detected with COVID-19. Shouldn’t we be more concerned with the common flu?

But, having said that, the precautions taken by government officials and the basic advice of washing hands and avoiding contact, I believe, will have the impact of reducing the severity of the spread and, therefore, reduce the time we’re impacted.

We are currently regularly disinfecting all touch points, including doors, credit card machines, cash registers, etc. We’ve also eliminated all physical contact between employees and customers. Employees coming into contact with customer vehicles at our full-serves will all be wearing gloves. Obviously, we’re also urging anyone with any symptoms or illness to remain home.

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Todd Gall

Co-Founder of Surf Thru Express Car Wash

Headquartered in Bakersfield, California

California: 175 reported cases2

I think everyone is concerned about this unprecedented time. We have not yet seen carwash counts drop, but we think a substantial drop is possible if the situation worsens. At this point, I really think our guests like the express model, which they can do by themselves without having people get in your car.

We’ve also heard guests talk about how they want to keep the inside of their car extra clean and disinfected; we think they’re right. Now, more than ever, it’s important to keep the inside of your car clean and free from germs. 

We’re planning for the worst, but hoping for the best. We think all businesses could potentially feel impacts for at least 6-12 months.

We’re taking all the recommended steps and then some additional ones. Of course, we’re bumping elbows instead of shaking hands, washing hands often, limiting face-to-face guest contact more than normal, supplying gloves for our employees and guests to wear, as well as frequently cleaning surfaces, including but not limited to our xpt screens, cashier screens, counter tops, and vacuum hoses and handles.  

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Bethany McAlister

Director of marketing and customer support for Mike’s Carwash

Headquartered in Loveland, Ohio

Ohio: 1-5 reported cases2

We have not seen an impact to our business as of yet. Our customers still appreciate our clean, quick carwash with a smile.

We are hopeful that the CDC and governmental actions will shorten the impact of this illness.

We have increased our cleaning regimen for both our customers and our team members and worked with our vendors to ensure adequate supply of the products we need. We encourage our team members to wash their hands often and to stay home if they feel sick, in accordance with the CDC guidelines.

Health insurance coverage is a topic that has come up frequently, so we have and will continue to work with our provider to provide guidance to our team.

Lastly, our annual leadership banquet celebrating our team’s success was delayed from April to September.

Kevin Zalaznik

Director of marketing for Hoffman Development

Headquartered in Albany, New York

New York: 325 reported cases2

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Having never dealt with something quite like this, our biggest concern is the uncertainty of the entire situation. Since people are likely to be cautious to leave the home, we anticipate a dip in car counts. Additionally, as schools and day cares close, we are prepared to be adaptive with our employees’ schedules.

We haven’t experienced any big impacts yet. If we do, we believe they will be short term.

We want to make sure we are communicating to our employees and customers whenever we get new information or change procedures. In addition to following CDC guidelines, we are using a disinfectant on all of our hard surfaces daily. We have implemented social distancing practices and have encouraged our employees to remain home if they feel ill.

Additionally, we are allowing our Jiffy Lube customers the option to remain in vehicles when visiting one of our service centers.

Carl Howard

Cheif operating officer of Autobell Car Wash

Headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina

North Carolina: 15 reported cases2

We have not seen a drop in volume as of yet and we hope that does not happen, but we are preparing for all scenarios.

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I don’t think anyone knows how much the infection rates will increase. Some medical experts believe that as temperatures warm infection rates might start to go down so we hope that’s the case.

We have purchased fogging devices that blanket the inside of customers’ cars with a disinfecting cleaner. We are fogging each vehicle as it goes into the carwash and we will fog it after the wash is complete. The first fogging is to protect our employees as they clean car interiors and the second fogging is to protect customers in the event that we have an employee who is sick and does not know it.

We’re also asking all employees to stay home if they have any symptoms.

Customers have asked us some questions and, as a response to their concerns, we purchased the fogging devices. By next week, we plan to have at least one fogging device at each store. We feel like we’re offering a solution and customers appreciate that and will come in and get the inside of their cars disinfected. 

fogging machine
An example of a handheld fogging machine. (Autobell Car Wash)

Steve Palmer

CFO and Marketing Director of Car Wash Enterprises Inc., dba Brown Bear Car Wash

Headquartered in Seattle, Washington

Washington: 457 reported cases2

Yes, there are heightened concerns from customers and employees. We have implemented enhanced cleaning procedures and are attempting to communicate what we are doing to address COVID-19 concerns to customers and employees. These may eventually impact wash volumes, but it is too early to tell what that impact will be.

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We anticipate these will likely last for at least the next 3 to 4 months. We are not certain if they will be longer lasting. We will have a better idea over the next 4 to 6 weeks.

We have created a letter that we are sending to customers and we’re following a list of enhanced cleaning procedures.

Robert Andre

Operating Partner of Liberty Car Wash

Headquartered in Homestead, Florida

Florida: 136 reported cases2

Carwashes have actually been extremely busy.

Our wash is located in the outparcel of a busy Walmart and people are constantly coming in and out to get groceries and other daily needs. I washed over 3,000 cars this past weekend at our location. So far, the impacts have been non-existent; the only thing I believe will hurt us is if carwashes and other retail businesses in the area are ordered to shut down.

I also believe that all the constant reminders to wash your hands subconsciously has people wanting to wash their cars. I know this is different than the economic downturn of 2008, but during that time people still washed their vehicles because it made them feel good.

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In response to coronavirus, we are cleaning vacuum hoses with chlorine nightly to kill germs and we’re wiping the paystations down on a continually basis. I have asked all my staff to wear gloves and avoid physical contact with customers.


Thank you to those operators who responded to our inquiry for updates and we will continue to update this post with responses from other operators as we receive them. We encourage everyone to stay safe and practice CDC guidelines for protecting yourself against this virus.

If you would like to include an update in this story about how your carwash is handling the coronavirus situation, please email me at [email protected].

Editor’s note: Statistical information noted in this article is accurate as of 3/13/20 and is according to WHO’s website as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) website.

Sources:

1 https://www.who.int (3/13/20)

2https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-in-us.html#2019coronavirus-summary (3/13/20)

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