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Garage manager Charly Benoit stands inside Merson Automotive in Montreal on March 20, 2020.

Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi/The Globe and

On a Tuesday afternoon in March, a time when Tony Siciliano’s garage would normally be packed with cars needing oil changes and summer tires installed, the shop was nearly empty. Siciliano is not yet sure if he will be able to keep his garage open through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Right now, we’re doing nothing,” said Siciliano, owner of Master Mechanic Yorkdale in Toronto. “From mid-last week, it looked like somebody just shut the switch off, turned the lights off.”

He’s already had to lay off one of his two mechanics, and he’s trying to decide if he’ll have to lay off the other one as well.

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Across the country, garages, mechanics and parts suppliers are feeling the impact of the pandemic as customers cancel appointments and new regulations aimed at stopping the spread of the virus force some operations to close.

Regulations vary by province and are evolving rapidly, so there is some confusion over whether garages can in fact remain open and in what capacity, according to JF Champagne, president of the Automotive Industries Association of Canada. Its members include Canadian Tire and NAPA Auto Parts stores.

“One of the concerns put forth by the business community is the lack of harmonization about those definitions of what is considered to be an essential service,” he said. The automotive aftermarket industry – which includes garages, collision-repair centres, parts manufacturers, retailers and distributors – employs 400,000 people in Canada, he added.

In Ontario, the regulations are clear. “Motor vehicle, auto-supply, auto and motor-vehicle repair” are listed as essential workplaces, and are therefore allowed to remain open. Car and truck dealerships are on the list as well.

What do B.C., Ontario and Quebec consider ‘essential’ businesses in a coronavirus pandemic? The lists so far

“Quebec didn’t provide the same level of clarity,” Champagne said. “We’re still trying to get some answers.” For now, he said, garages and parts suppliers in Quebec have curtailed retail sales and are focused on providing front-line workers with essential parts and service for their vehicles.

Mechanics change tires on a car at Merson Automotive on March 20. The shop has now closed until April 13 due to COVID-19 risks.

Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi/The Globe and

Regulations in New Brunswick and PEI are similar to those in Ontario, he explained. In Newfoundland, his understanding was that only auto repair was deemed essential and not parts suppliers. Since garages don’t keep every part for every car in stock, that could make certain repairs impossible. Some provinces haven’t been as active as others, he added. At this point, British Columbia has not ordered a shutdown of all non-essential businesses.

“The aftermarket is often an afterthought,” Champagne said. There are around 26 million vehicles on the road in Canada. Not all of them are essential right now, he acknowledged, but many of them are.

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Some jurisdictions rely on the aftermarket industry to maintain government vehicles, natural-resource vehicles, some fire department and RCMP vehicles, some ambulances as well as some telecom service vehicles, he explained.

If the provinces do all eventually agree on what constitutes an essential service, it still may not make financial sense for these aftermarket businesses to remain open.

In the parts-distribution sector of the aftermarket industry, Champagne had heard layoffs could be anywhere from 15 to 35 per cent of the total work force. All 400 or so collision-repair shops in Quebec have already closed as well, he noted.

At Montreal’s Merson Automotive, garage manager Charly Benoit said earlier this week that a lot of appointments had already been cancelled. “We are losing probably 60 per cent of the business we should have at this time of year,” he said on Monday. Later that day, Merson Automotive closed up shop and won’t reopen until April 13, according to its Facebook page.

“It's going to be the first time I’ve been laid off, right now,” said Benoit, who has been working at this family-owned garage for 28 years. “It’s nobody’s fault except that virus.”

Master Mechanic, which has 39 franchise garage locations across southern Ontario, of which Tony Siciliano’s is one, advised customers to call ahead to arrange service for their vehicles. Social distancing and additional sanitization measures are in effect.

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Even during the massive blackout that ground much of Ontario and parts of the U.S. to a halt in 2003, Siciliano – who opened his first auto repair shop in 1979 – managed to keep his garage open. On Wednesday, he called a few other shops to see what they were doing and found most of them were already closed. “I’m still processing it,” he said over the phone from his quiet garage.

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