Automakers React To Coronavirus

The New York International Auto Show and MediaPost's Marketing: Automotive conference and awards have been rescheduled to August, but it is truly anyone’s guess if that will be enough time to get a handle on the coronavirus, which is spreading like wildfire across the country. 

It was only a matter of time before the disease made its way to marketing departments. Actor and Ford celebrity spokesperson Idris Elba, who appears in the current Mustang Mach-E campaign, announced he has tested positive for the virus and is in quarantine at home. So far he is asymptomatic. The actor tweeted the news this afternoon.

Ford is running creative from Wieden+Kennedy explaining what it is doing in reaction to the coronavirus. Like Hyundai and Genesis, the automaker is waiving payments for customers affected by the disease.  

Over the weekend, the United Auto Workers, General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles announced they are forming a coronavirus task force to implement enhanced protections for manufacturing and warehouse employees at all three companies.

While task forces are well and good, employees at assembly plants often work in close proximity with each other, and the idea of effective social distancing is laughable. Effectively disinfecting large moving machinery also seems next to impossible. 

Already, workers at FCA’s minivan assembly plant in Windsor, Ontario walked out for a day due to fear of the contracting the coronavirus at the plant. While there are no confirmed cases of the disease at the plant, there is an employee “out on self-quarantine,” the company told CNBC. The plant was idled for about 24 hours, from mid-afternoon Thursday until about 3 p.m. Friday.

FCA so far is the only automaker to confirm a plant employee tested positive for coronavirus. The company on Thursday confirmed a UAW member at its Kokomo Transmission plant in Indiana contracted the disease, according to CNBC. Those who may have come into direct contact with the person have been quarantined.

It’s likely that many more automotive employees have contracted the virus, whether or not they have been tested for it or even are showing signs of it. 

Maybe it’s time for all U.S. production to halt. How critical is it that production levels be maintained -- when it seems likely that auto sales will drop dramatically in the next month, as Americans nationwide curtail their activity outside of their homes?

In Europe, FCA announced today that its subsidiaries FCA Italy and Maserati will temporarily suspend production across the majority of their European manufacturing plants.

The temporary suspension, which will be in effect through March 27, continues the implementation of a comprehensive set of actions in response to the coronavirus emergency and enables the group to effectively respond to the interruption in market demand by ensuring the optimization of supply.  

On the non-production side of the business, GM, Ford, FCA and Nissan are among automakers telling white-collar employers to work remotely beginning today. 

“This action is out of an abundance of caution to help reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus and to allow us to redeploy resources for the employee populations who are unable to work remotely,” Nissan said in a statement. 

According to a letter from General Motors CEO Mary Barra to employees, the company is asking any employee or contract worker to work remotely if their job allows for it. This goes for all employees across the globe, apart from China, which already has protocols in place.

"These are important steps to lower the probability of spreading the coronavirus to coworkers, families and communities and to relieve the burden on public resources. It also helps conserve critical resources like cleaning crews, medical staff, and supplies so they can be deployed where they are most needed," Barra wrote.

Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds' executive director of insights, praised the "goodwill gestures" of the automakers who are assisting customers affected by the virus. 

"These are uncertain times across almost all industries, but we’re seeing some encouraging signs for the automotive sector," she says. "The Fed rate cut will help drive down interest rates and help keep sales in a healthier place once regular life resumes. The automotive industry is extremely resilient and has always found a way to bounce back from significant challenges in the market, and we anticipate that more automakers will take the opportunity to incentivize sales once the worst of this pandemic is over." 

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