Long after social distancing and the wearing of personal protection equipment becomes a memory (soon, we pray), consumer alertness to microbial dangers will remain active, redefining how auto retailers and their customers view and interact with inventory.

It’s one thing to disinfect horizontal surfaces, another to clean vehicles every time one returns from a test drive or a porter moves one off a transport. A dealer’s inventory now becomes a moveable risk.

It’s a safe bet no auto dealer ever thought he or she would also be in the vehicle disinfection and personal safety business, as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced upon the industry.  But most companies are now – and especially for car dealers, in it for the long haul.

Ensuring customers that the vehicles they sit in, test- drive and take delivery of aren’t COVID-19 carriers – or potential sources of other viruses and dangerous bacteria – isn’t as simple as stocking up on Lysol.

Instead, big-league solutions are necessary for protecting team members and customers from COVID-level risks. Front-and-center of any disinfectant product evaluation is the product must meet the EPA’s criteria for use against SARS-CoV-2.

The EPA provides a list of COVID-19 disinfectants, but notice that these products “are for use on surfaces, not humans.”

Industry organizations have responded to pandemic risks to dealers. Two such providers are The NADA Coronavirus Hub, and Motor Magazine’s COVID-19 Outbreak and Automotive Response.

Moving Targets

Not so easily sanitized and made safe for consumers is inventory. That task wouldn’t be such a problem if the vehicles on your lot weren’t moving, which will be increasingly so as state-by-state lockdown rules are lifted.

“That’s a great question, and one that concerns me as a dealer,” said John Napoleon, dealer principal for Carson City Hyundai in Carson City, NV. “I’m not so naive as to believe we’re going to be able to clean every vehicle every time someone touches it.”

Carson City Hyundai sells 30 new and 50 used cars a month.

“We’re training staff on this topic,” said Lou Bregou, director of Operations for the 18-store group Driver’s Village, near Syracuse, NY.

Both dealers have implemented different solutions to this challenge.

“Dealerships using sanitizing wipes, plastic steering wheel, and door-handle covers and similar entry-level solutions to protect staff and customers are not doing enough,” said Joe Colucci, with PermaSafe Protective Coatings, LLC, a manufacturer of vehicle disinfection and long-term antimicrobial protection products.

“I wrote a LinkedIn post on the efficacy of various antimicrobials just before NADA this year and received 1,500 views. Within a few weeks of the convention, my views jumped to 400,000,” he said, noting soaring interest in reducing COVID-19 risks to their employers and customers.

Definitions Help

Colucci explained that the term “antimicrobial” could be confusing, as it’s “an overly-broad category that includes everything from the most sophisticated sterilizing agents used in organ transplant surgery, to mold and mildew treatments for swimming pools. And that’s where the confusion stems from.”

Unlike sanitizer and disinfectant, the term antimicrobial does not represent a level of efficacy. Instead, it’s weakly defined as any product marketed with any claim related to killing or inhibiting the growth of any microorganism.

Antimicrobial products must be approved for registration with the EPA. The exceptions are those capable of achieving the efficacy standards of a sanitizer (must kill 99.9% of bacteria) or a disinfectant (must kill 99.9% of bacteria and viruses), or even a hospital-grade disinfectant (99.999% of bacteria and viruses), they’re not viable options in today’s new microbe-conscious world, he said.

With the liability potential, dealers should consider bypassing the use of sanitizers for disinfectants containing antimicrobials, Colucci said.

He advised dealers evaluating disinfectant products to insist on seeing and reading the products’ EPA Master Label. It defines what the product does, its safety profile, correct use and the marketing claims you can make about its use in your store,” he said.

The EPA has yet to register any disinfectant product as capable of killing COVID-19. Some disinfectants, such as PermaSafe CLEAN, have been approved by the EPA for use against SARS-CoV-2. This virus is the novel coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19.

“COVID created unique new challenges for dealers, but as the industry has always done in a crisis, it knuckled down to meet it. Consumer awareness and vehicle disinfectant protection programs help dealers fulfill their commitments to customer safety,” said Jim Maxim, DealerMax chief executive officer.

 DealerMax offers free training and tools, including a customizable dealer-branded COVID-19 “Protection Promise” program, which includes a safety checklist of disinfecting steps and processes for all operations of the dealership, including vehicles on the lot and in service.

“Equally as important as using the right products is articulating to customers how you’ve created a safe environment for them – or they likely won’t buy from you. We are selling safety and have to be doing what we say consistently, with accountability. Our program helps dealers promote this concern and protection to their customers,” Maxim said.

Dealers Speak

“Our process for all vehicle cleaning is the same – we have homemade 8” by 11” heavy stock COVID Dirty and COVID Clean signs for vehicles, which we place on the driver-side dash, to identify their sanitation status,” said Bregou. “We use 98% alcohol in spray bottles and disposable paper towels to sanitize vehicle interiors. We clean a car in about five minutes, though trade-ins, which we sanitize before we move those cars into recon, take longer.”

Rubbing alcohol solutions having at least 70% alcohol is effective against coronavirus. WebMD reports that this treatment should be left on surfaces for 30 seconds to ensure they will kill viruses. Pure or 100% alcohol, the site noted, evaporates too quickly.

Bregou said his disinfectant process follows NADA guidelines for disinfecting automobile interior “hot spots.”

Napoleon’s approach to inventory sanitation is similar: treat vehicle interiors with a long-acting antimicrobial spray-on product and then use placards that state which vehicles have been treated.

“I visited PermaSafe at NADA and purchased their system just days before COVID hit the U.S. hard,” Napoleon said. “I had no idea then how fortuitous the decision to visit their booth would be for us.”

Jim Leman has been writing about automotive retail variable and fix operations since 1992.