It’s hard out there for tow truck operators right now. It’s hard for everyone, but few think about the towing industry — probably because it’s something they’re usually trying to avoid.

Lew Blum thinks about it constantly. The guy whose signs are so ubiquitous around the city that he’s been called “Philadelphia’s Tow-Truck King” and “the most hated man in Philadelphia” fears what the pandemic will bring for his already struggling operation.

On the upside, he’s been hearing an unexpected positive refrain.

“Some of them have thanked us,” Blum said of drivers whose cars have gotten hooked, in reference to the care his staff takes to avoid potential coronavirus contamination. “We will open the door, spray the steering wheel, spray the shifter, spray the drivers’ seat.”

To make sure his fleet of four drivers are safe while they work, and to keep car owners from worrying about whether a tow equals infection, Blum has gotten creative.

In place of hand sanitizer, which is hard to come by and which Blum said “makes your hands dry and scaly,” he’s been providing drivers with bars of Dove soap in plastic bags. Paired with a screw-cap gallon jug of water kept in the truck, his drivers can “wash their hands any and every time [they] need to.”

Then there’s the spray, which Blum makes by diluting ammonium-based sanitizer and uses on basically everything.

The small waiting room at the Lew Blum Towing impoundment lot in East Parkside gets sprayed every time someone new enters, he said, kicking off a miniature cascade of antiviral acts.

“They give us their key, we take it with gloves on, we set it down on a tin cup and spray it. They give us a credit card, we spray it — [or if] they give us cash, we spread it across the counter, and spray it and let it dry before we touch it.”

Not many people have seen that performance play out; Blum said business is down 80% since the lockdown started.

The PPA has cut back on citations during the pandemic, and Philly law requires tickets on cars before they can be towed. Blum was so fired up and angry about that requirement, newly enacted in 2015, that it spurred him to campaign for a seat on City Council.

“That ticket-to-tow idea was bad,” he said, noting his staff is already shrunken to one-third its previous size, “but it’s almost like this coronavirus is the nail in the coffin.”

For now, the 64-year-old tow magnate is determined to keep things running.

He imagined scenarios where people emerge from self-quarantine for important errands only to find a stranger’s car blocking their garage. “People are gonna call me, ‘Lew, I gotta get to the doctor, I gotta get to the grocery store!’

“I can’t shut down,” said Blum about the business he started in 1978, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. “I am an essential company.”

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...