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As a lot of Americans are hunkering down, working from home and avoiding public places, truck drivers are out on the roads, delivering essential goods.
The closure of non-essential businesses in several states, including Pennsylvania, has some drivers worried there could soon be less freight to haul around. But for others, primarily those who transport food products, the last few weeks have been busier than ever.
And while the coronavirus pandemic has brought a lot of changes to truck drivers’ lives, with restaurants closing and restrictions at warehouses, several drivers from Central Pennsylvania said their mission remains the same.
“America still needs to eat,” said Lancaster-based driver James Hill. “The only way for them to do that is for the truck drivers of America to keep biting the bullet and keep pushing forward.”
Recently, Hill’s son, Gabriel, was sick with a bad cough and a slight fever. Hill, a 10-year Army veteran, said he wanted to just stay home and comfort his toddler. But, to earn a living, he has to be out on the road accumulating miles.
So, he went to work. And a few days later, when Hill was asked to run a load that would pay barely enough to cover the cost of his diesel, he felt he had to, because it was a food delivery.
“If every truck driver or maybe even just one truck driver decided: ‘I’m not driving anymore through the coronavirus.’ That’s one less load of food … that won’t make it to that store,”‘ Hill said. “That in turn puts more stress on your community.”
So, as Americans continue to raid grocery stores for essential items, the country’s truck drivers continue to work.
Sean McNally, a spokesman for American Trucking Associations, said the increased demand from grocery stores and hospitals has balanced out a decline in freight from manufacturing and imports.
“Right now we’re in the storm before the calm,” McNally said.
No place to eat?
Drivers in Pennsylvania got quite the shock last week, when the state announced rest stops on the Turnpike and other major interstates would be closing, leaving drivers with nowhere to park besides the shoulder or off-ramps, which would get them a ticket.
After a brief uproar – and what one driver said could have escalated into a driver boycott of the state – Pennsylvania reopened rest stops.
Still, business closures have adversely affected drivers, who sometimes spend weeks on the road at a time. While their parking lots are open, sit-down restaurants at truck stops are closed, leaving drivers with little choice but to eat in their truck.
Even getting food can be difficult. Going through a drive-thru is not an option in a tractor- trailer, Bethel-based driver Clint Sweigart pointed out, and some drive-thrus won’t accept “walk-thrus.”
McNally said access to food and bathrooms at rest areas has been the biggest challenge for drivers nationwide in recent days.
“We are all in this together, and a little cooperation and coordination can go a long way to making sure that doctors, nurses, shopkeepers and consumers have what they need to fight this virus,” McNally said.
But, that doesn’t mean it’s all been bad.
As millions of Americans now commute from their bedroom to their home office or kitchen table, the roads have cleared up.
“I’m not trying to be selfish, but actually it’s been kind of nice because traffic has been better,” Sweigart said. “You can definitely notice a difference.”
People have stepped up for truck drivers, too. Joe Catterman, who lives in East Hartford, Connecticut, but is moving to Palmyra in a few weeks, said he’s heard stories of people buying meals for drivers, and even opening up their homes to let them take showers or grab a hot dinner.
In the past few days, Catterman said he’s given out more “trucker salutes” – when he blows his horn to someone waving at him – then he’s ever done before.
“If you want to make a truck driver’s day, you do that,” Catterman said. “You will see a grin from ear to ear on a truck driver’s face.”
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A sense of service
The drivers said their colleagues are taking the novel coronavirus in a variety of ways. Some are joking about it, while others are being careful to wash their hands and avoid touching surfaces while in rest stops.
Hill said he is concerned his job is putting him at a higher risk for the novel coronavirus – he has to move from state to state, and touch paperwork, pens and other things when he is picking up or delivering a load.
Testing may be an issue, too, Hill said.Trucks likely wouldn’t fly at the outdoor testing centers set up across the state, and a driver may not be home enough to see their doctor.
While Hill noted that a truck doesn’t have running water, making it hard to wash your hands after returning from a truck stop, Catterman pointed out that drivers are already used to the lifestyle other Americans are now having to adapt to.
Drivers largely work by themselves, and often sleep in their vehicles.
“As far as the whole social distancing thing goes, truckers do that regardless,” Catterman joked.
While concerns about their safety are on their minds, both Catterman and Hill see their work as a way to serve their country.
During his time in the infantry, Hill served several tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. There, he saw how extreme stress affected communities. Through his work, he’s doing his part to ease stress for communities around the country.
“While you’re at risk out here being a driver, running the risk of contracting the coronavirus, I know because I’m out here, there’s other drivers out here,” Hill said.
Also a veteran, Catterman said not working through the coronavirus was never an option for him.
“Everybody’s (talking) about the doctors and nurses and medical professionals on the front lines, but there’s also the truck drivers, the truck mechanics, the truck tire technicians,” Catteran said. “America needs us right now.”
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