Tom Piippo’s One Eye in the Mirror: Dealing with COVID-19

Tom Piippo

We have all been through it before: SARS, MERS, N1H1.

I remember all the talk on the news. I remember Asians in public wearing surgical masks. It was always someone else, somewhere else.

When the news suddenly shifted from the impeachment proceedings to the Novel Coronavirus, I thought “Ho-Hum, another Asian thing.”  I didn’t take it very seriously, at first. 

My grandsons are “tweenagers” and we have had a blast snowmobiling together this winter. They really like riding Grandpa’s snowmobiles and, in return, I get to pretend I am young again.

Our last ride in early March proved to be quite taxing for a pair of old Yamahas that had been in the fleet for a few years. They were great machines when the boys were younger, but now our rides take us further… faster. One last session of repairs on the old sleds and they were sold as vintage machines (1977 Enticers). Now, what do I get for replacements? Cruising the usual internet sale sites (Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace) I could gauge what was available and how much it was going to cost, when I stumbled across a dealer that was selling New Old Stock for the price of used!

On March 13, despite all the warnings of doom and gloom and the COVID-19 pandemic (I still wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid, not believing that I would be affected), I towed an empty trailer to a not-so-nearby Ski-Doo dealership and bought two shiny new Ski-Doo snowmobiles. I didn’t mind reaching deep into my pockets knowing how much pleasure these new machines would bring us, the smiles on the boys faces, even though it would be at least nine months before we could ride again.

Kris and I stopped by a grocery store near the dealership for a few things. It would be late by the time we got back home. I haven’t been to this store before, but boy it sure was busy. Carts were piled high, some people were pushing one cart, pulling a second. I asked the cashier if their store was always that busy?

“Panic buying,” she replied.

Hmm, these people all drank the Kool-Aid, but not me! I don’t fall for all that twisted news that spews from hyped-up reporters.

Business had been slowing for a couple weeks. “Only a slump,” I was thinking. Then on Tuesday, March 17, it stopped completely.

I told my three techs and service advisor to go home, I can do the one oil change scheduled for the next day. For two days I organized my files, shined my tools, worked on a new marketing plan. I did a lot of stuff, but I never answered the phone! I would pick it up and check for a dial tone about every hour. It was just not ringing.

March 20th, a Friday, I watched my retirement investments drop by five figures. I figured that more people were drinking the Kool-Aid and panicking, affecting the markets, so now it was starting to get my attention.

Michigan Gov. Whitmer had closed schools, issued shelter-at-home orders and instructed non-essential businesses to close, but she neglected to list either the essential or the non-essential businesses. It was starting to sound very serious. I called my employees and told them to all file for unemployment benefits. This would keep them in some money because I just could not promise what was going to happen next!

Monday, March 23, I called one tech back to work. Some work was coming in, just not enough for the whole crew. We service the fleets of two delivery companies, and historically I have kept one tech consistently busy with just fleet work. I knew both companies were very busy during this time, but still no calls, so I called them. They were so busy. They were running the trucks ragged and couldn’t let them down for service. Well that will be good news for us next month.

Then I received news of the government CARES Act: The Economic Impact Disaster Loan (EIDL) that would be a grant and the Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) that would fit small auto shops like mine.

ASA Washington, D.C. representative Bob Redding told us to study the document and be prepared because we would likely know more than the bank. He also said that small banks were likely to be more helpful that large banks.

When the application and accompanying instruction became available, Kris and I were right on it. We made a few calls to our CPA (yes, there was a line item on the bill for PPP advice), collected the supporting documents and made sure we were one of the first in line at the bank on Friday, April 2

I had several email and phone conversation with my banker the following week, often citing the PPP Interim Final Ruling (the official rules for this program). First, the application form had a revision, as did the instructions, then there was the question if the owners wages were eligible or not? The application only asked for wages reported on form 940/941 (just the employees were listed, I pay my taxes quarterly). Another call to ASA for advice, and Bob Redding told us that we would be eligible to file April 9 as a business owner (which we did).

Wednesday, April 15, we were to stop by our bank to sign the PPP loan papers. I couldn’t get there quick enough. This looked like the first time in my 42-year history as a business owner that a government assistance plan was actually going to benefit my business! The loan funds were deposited later the same day, as was the EIDL loan. (FYI, the EIDL is based on the employees listed on form 940/941 at $2000 per employee, capped at $10,000.)

Thursday morning, I called my other techs and service advisor back to work for Monday. One tech had taken a job elsewhere and the other stated that his wife had encountered someone COVID-19 positive. His quarantine would run into next week, so he will start April 27. The tech who took another job was a new hire this year, so it does not affect my 2019 employment numbers, and that works to my advantage.

I understand that there are other shops who have people either afraid to come back to work or may be using that excuse to stay home and collect the newly inflated unemployment benefits. I feel for you because we are required to bring our employment levels back to the level in 2019. I invite others to tell their story of handling this situation.

Opinions welcome at