A wholesaler at an auto dealer in Ontario has quickly pointed out to the provincial government that designating dealerships “essential workplaces” is both a blessing and curse.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford on Monday said all non-essential businesses will close for 14 days beginning at 11:59 p.m. ET on Tuesday in an effort to thwart the spread of the novel coronavirus. Dealerships don’t have to close.
However, just because dealerships will remain open and able to sell new vehicles, it doesn’t mean it’s easy and it illustrates an opportunity previously missed by the government.
In a letter to the Ministry of Transportation, Kevin MacDonald, the wholesale manager for Hinton Dodge in Perth, Ont., writes that dealers “all breathed a sigh of relief” when they learned they were considered essential. However, business won’t be easy to conduct. That’s because more than half of Ontario’s licensing bureaus are closed.
New-vehicle dealers in Ontario must obtain licence plates from and complete ownership paperwork at a ServiceOntario bureau, but the province has shuttered more than half of them as it encourages social distancing as a way to stop the spread of the virus. As of Tuesday afternoon, 153 of the 280 ServiceOntario centres were closed.
Dealers in Ontario can still finalize sales over email of even fax, if they choose. And if stores are open, some are still generating sales leads online or over the phone. But if the ServiceOntario location is closed, the buyer might have to wait for deliver because of the inability to get plates in some cases.
MacDonald said this could have been avoided if the government would have passed legislation allowing dealerships to licence vehicles in-house.
“When your government was in opposition you were supportive of a plan to allow dealers to do their own licensing online in their offices as they prepare paperwork. Yet now that you are in government I don’t see this anywhere in your legislative plans,” MacDonald wrote. “Surely you see the paradox here? By forcing us to be reliant on licence bureaus you have in effect forced us to avoid social distancing.”
Dealers have been advocating for the right to license in house for years. A number of bills have been tabled at Queen’s Park but never made their way into law for various reasons. The Conservatives, as far back as 2016, began pushing for the change.
Some dealers currently pay staff to drive back and forth from the licensing office, using fuel and putting wear and tear on dealership-owned demo vehicles. In some cities, the licence bureau makes house calls to dealerships twice a day, picking up and dropping off paperwork in the morning and afternoon.
“The province [has] done the car business a disservice by not pushing through MTO changes that would have allowed dealers to license cars in their own office,” MacDonald told Automotive News Canada. “As a result , dealers have been forced to go to MTO offices even as they try social distancing measures.
NO BUREAUS, NO BUSINESS
“Even if we are an essential service, no license bureau means no business.”
Ontario is set to roll out a digital dealer registration pilot program this spring. But it hasn't happened yet. It is supposed to allow businesses to apply for permits, plates and validation stickers online and will be developed through a six month, province-wide consultation in close partnership with ServiceOntario network providers as well as car dealerships, rental car, and fleet vehicle organizations.
While it’s more difficult to license a new vehicle and finish paperwork right now, it’s not impossible says the Trillium Automobile Dealers Association, which represents about 1,000 new-vehicle dealerships in Ontario.
“We understand that many ServiceOntario locations are closed or have reduced their hours. While this makes it difficult for dealers to licence vehicles, these are unprecedented times and public health comes first,” TADA spokesman Frank Notte said in a statement to Automotive News Canada.
“For affected dealers, we hope there is a location close by to serve their needs.
“We fully understand and appreciate that customers won’t experience the same level of service as before the COVID-19 situation.”