Coronavirus turns Utah truckers into heroes

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Truck drivers come and go at C.R. England trucking in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 30, 2020. The coronavirus outbreak has helped make truckers heroes as they help to stock empty shelves in stores. Drivers face new challenges from finding restrooms and food on the road amid shutdowns, but say they enjoy driving with no congestion.

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John Evans, a long-haul truck driver based in Salt Lake City, loves how children in South Carolina held signs saying, “We love you, truckers.” He tells how his partner tried to buy a sandwich in Kentucky but was told someone left a gift card there to provide free food for any truckers.

As Evans delivers loads now, he said most customers are welcoming him with free coffee and doughnuts or effusive praise for continuing to work during the coronavirus outbreak. On top of all that, he hasn’t seen any road congestion in more than a week.

“If there has ever been a perfect time to be a trucker," Evans said, “this is it.”

But maybe it’s not quite perfect.

Sometimes it’s hard to find a restroom to use on the road or food to buy amid shutdowns. Truckers transporting food or medical supplies find plenty of work, but others see orders dwindle as other businesses close or cut back. Worries about layoffs linger. Some question whether easing federal rules to allow driving longer to deliver critical supplies makes roads more dangerous.

And not everyone is nice to drivers. “There were maybe one or two customers who said their attorney or insurance company said we weren’t allowed in their building,” Evans said, so drivers couldn’t use a restroom or get a drink as they made a delivery. “I can kind of understand that because these are unprecedented times.”

Highway heroes

Still, many in the industry say what’s truly unprecedented is how drivers now are seen as heroes.

“Truck drivers are getting more respect than they’ve ever received,” said Zach England, chief operating officer of C.R. England trucking in Salt Lake City. “I think society is finally appreciating them and the vital role that they fill for our country.”

Rick Clasby, executive director of the Utah Trucking Association, said, “It was a shock to everybody to go into stores for the first time to see shelves empty and toilet paper and cleaning supplies nonexistent” — and they appreciate the people who helped refill inventories.

He added that, unless they are sick, truckers have generally showed up during the coronavirus outbreak, and take pride in being a new type of road warrior.

“Folks are just understanding that these guys are still working and are not at home protecting themselves,” Clasby said. “Drivers understand that their role is critical, so — yes, sir — they are showing up. Our biggest concern is if they start to show symptoms or if they get sick.” So the industry is careful, he said, about social distancing and staying home when ill to keep the system moving.

Boom and bust

Clasby said different sectors of the trucking industry are either enjoying record business or worrying as the industries they serve shut down or reduce activity.

“Those that are hauling food, groceries and medical supplies are very busy right now," Clasby said. “It’s chaotic.”

But other industries are slowing down amid coronavirus restrictions, and so is work for the truckers who serve them.

“Obviously that is causing nervousness,” Clasby said. But he added that there was a driver shortage before the virus outbreak, so losing some work means demand more closely matches the availability of drivers.

“So far, I’ve not heard of widespread layoffs within the trucking industry," he said. “We’ve got such a driver shortage that I’m sure folks are trying to keep everybody on and busy as best they can.”

England, whose company includes a large fleet of refrigerated trucks, said it is generally in the right sector by serving the food industry. But while the grocery store side of that is busier than ever, the restaurant side has slowed greatly because of shutdowns caused by virus restrictions.

“So we’re shifting a lot of our truck capacity” to the busier side, he said. “At this time with the coronavirus, we’re seeing drivers very appreciative to have jobs, and they are stepping up and realizing the essential role they play in the recovery for our country."

No congestion, but new problems

The societal slowdown from coronavirus has meant less traffic.

“I haven’t hit any rush hour traffic in probably a week,” Evans said.

Many drivers report making deliveries in record time, England said. “I was talking to a driver this morning, and he said every time he drove through Austin, Texas, it took at least an hour to get through. Now, he’s just zooming through.”

Clasby said that helps in ways besides making quicker deliveries.

“I can tell you that reduced congestion has just got to be helping our guys, as far as their state of mind,” he said.

Some things are tougher on the road. For example, restaurants — including at truck stops — generally do not allow sit-down service anymore.

“When you get to a truck stop, it’s nice to be able to get out and stretch your legs," England said. “It’s nice to sit down at a restaurant and get out of the truck you’ve been sitting in for the last eight hours. So they’re having to deal with that.”

While drive-thru service is available along the road, “My truck isn’t exactly built for a drive-thru,” Evans said. So many restaurants and drive-ins are arranging call-ahead service and will run out orders to truckers — and are also currently offering steep discounts for drivers.

Sometimes it’s hard to find a restroom when restaurants do not allow entry.

“There have been some cases with rest areas around the country where they’ve closed because of toilet paper shortage or challenges with cleaning,” England said.

Most truck stops try to stay open 24 hours a day, but Evans said he’s found that some are closing overnight because of shortages in staff and supplies.

“So you have to plan a little better now,” he said, including keeping some food on hand for stretches where it may not be available.

Rule change increasing danger?

Evans also worries about emergency lifting of federal rules that limited truckers to driving for no more than 11 hours (then taking a mandatory break), or being on duty for no more than 14 hours. Those no longer apply to truckers carrying critical supplies, which include food and medicine.

“I don’t want to drive 18 hours. That’s just not safe,” said Evans, who noted that his 11-year career — after he retired from a 30-year career in the mortgage industry — includes 1.4 million miles of driving without an accident.

England said his company also chose not to add extra driving hours as that rule was lifted. “If you’re extending a few hours after they already been driving for 11 hours, their likelihood of an accident or injury at that point is so high that we just don’t feel like it’s worth the risk.”

But Clasby said easing the restrictions has been helpful in some situations.

“We heard stories where trucks were lined up at Costco or Walmart distribution centers for pickup or delivery, and there will be 400 or 500 other trucks waiting in line to handle supply chain needs,” he said, meaning some driver would time out while waiting for loads. “So, yes, that relaxing [of rules] has been very helpful.”

Amid everything, Evans said he loves how Americans do seem now to give truckers respect.

“Before I was in this business, I would go to the store and buy tomatoes or lettuce and never thought about how they got there,” but now he knows up to five trucks were needed to deliver it from field to processing to storage to distribution centers and stores. Empty shelves jolted people into thinking about that.

“The spotlight is on us now,” he said. “We need to act professional and keep the deliveries coming.”