Sales have declined so dramatically at gas stations that many owners cannot maintain their regular business hours, and trade groups fear some may not survive the pandemic.
Gas station owners have watched their fuel sales plummet by as much as 70% over the past month, as officials have urged people to isolate themselves and avoid travel, and nonessential businesses have shuttered. As people use their cars less, vehicle repair work has nearly stalled and convenience store transactions have slowed, according to station owners and managers.
Franchise owners said they have appealed to their landlords for leniency on rent bills and rushed to find banks administering new federal grant and loan initiatives for small businesses.
“If we have to go through [this] until May, I don’t know how many businesses are going to survive,” said Kevin Beyer, vice president of government affairs at the Long Island Gasoline Retailers Association, which represents small, independent stations.
Beyer's Smithtown station, Performance Fuels, is not immune from the industry's struggles. With gas sales down about 50%, Beyer said it is not viable to pay for electricity, personnel and other expenses during particularly slow periods. So he has repeatedly reduced the station's hours: the business now opens about an hour later and closes three hours earlier than it used to.
“You try to be there for your customers,” said Beyer. "You still have the essential workers" coming to buy gas.
On top of weak convenience item sales, food and beverage distributors have consolidated their operations. One firm now requires Beyer to make two weeks' worth of orders at once; others have increased their minimum delivery sizes.
"You need the money to pay for that, but you’re not selling off that stuff as quick either," Beyer said. "It's very difficult on your cash flow."
While on hold for more than two hours with the U.S. Small Business Administration, Beyer said he was hoping to get guidance on its new Paycheck Protection Program. Under the initiative, banks administer loans to small businesses; the loans may be forgiven if employees are kept on the payroll for eight weeks.
“I don’t know how long we can hang on either, as far as staying open," Beyer said.
The Gasoline and Automotive Service Dealers Association, which represents independent stations and auto repair shops in the metro area, reached out to major oil companies and suppliers requesting breaks on rent and other costs, according to its executive director, Wayne Bombardiere.
Roughly 415 gas stations operate in Nassau County and 495 in Suffolk County, according to 2017 County Business Patterns data, the most recent count available from the U.S. Census Bureau.
GASDA is still waiting to hear back from most companies, Bombardiere said.
The cost of doing business in the metro area is particularly high and the setback posed by COVID-19 may be insurmountable for some stations, particularly mom-and-pop businesses, according to Patrick Dehaan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy, an app that crowdsources advice on the best locations for drivers to refuel.
“There could be a level of shutdown because these costs in the background are so high: the cost of rent, property taxes,” Dehaan said.
Even with some flexibility from his landlord, Anton Parisi said the roughly 20 stations he operates across the Island are struggling. At the two locations he rents, Parisi said his landlord agreed to accept half the rent at the beginning of April and the rest on the 15th. He has also cut hours at these two stations, despite being contractually obligated to stay open 24/7.
“At this point, nobody is making a big deal about it,” said Parisi, 69, a Wantagh resident.
Parisi said convenience item purchases have declined “tremendously,” and he estimated gas sales have dropped 70% and repair jobs 90% across his stations.
“Everybody’s scared to spend money and scared to be around people,” said Kevin Bader, a Merrick resident who manages a gas station, convenience store and repair shop in Rockville Centre for Parisi. “You go home exhausted every night from doing absolutely nothing.”
Coronavirus struck at a particularly troubling time for Strong Oil Co., which has one gas station in Water Mill and another in Hampton Bays, according to Evans Edson, vice president of operations. Edson said gas sales have dipped at least 50%, and slid further in the convenience stores.
“We scrape through the winter to make it in the summer,” said Edson, 47, a Southampton resident.
Staffing has been a challenge at Syed Hussain’s West Babylon Shell station. Two workers who were nervous about the virus stopped showing up. With one employee left, Hussain has been working at least 12 hours a day.
“[The workers] don’t want to be on the front lines,” said Hussain, 53, of Elmont. “I don’t have a choice.”
When Hussain leaves the Shell, he worries about his mother, a nearly 80-year-old lung cancer survivor who lives with him.
“I get very scared when I go back home,” Hussain said. “We are really praying to God that things get normal.”