Truck drivers face open highways, closed doors in early weeks of Covid-19

John G Smith

The doors have been closing for weeks now.

A growing number of non-essential workers shelter at home. Many businesses are silent. Highways are mostly devoid of the traffic that would otherwise be cursed for causing bottlenecks and delays. The Canada-U.S. border has been restricted to essential activities like trucking since March 21.

Even truck stop dining rooms, the industry’s unofficial social hubs, have largely fallen dark. Drivers are asked to gather takeout containers and leave, consuming the contents inside sleepers and cabs.

“You never know what you are going to find when you arrive.”

– John Power, S&M Trucking

“You never know what you are going to find when you arrive. Some places are open, some not, hours are reduced,” said John Power of S&M Trucking in Nova Scotia, only weeks after businesses began to restrict access. “Even during the SARS and H1N1 scare, it wasn’t like this.”

But the impact of those epidemics pale in comparison to Covid-19 — the global health scare that has brought the world’s economy to a standstill.

Dave Legge, Shandex Truck

Dave Legge, a driver with Shandex Truck, was largely unfazed by the closed truck stops at first. He always stocks his truck with a five-day supply of food, the coffee and tea, a case of Mr. Noodles.

“I’m ‘self-isolated’ in the truck. Always have been,” he said, using a phrase that’s become commonplace in the days of a pandemic. “I don’t use restaurants that often.”

He was admittedly caught off guard during a trip between York and Greenville, Pa., though. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation had temporarily closed all rest areas on March 17, re-opening the locations only after industry and political pressure.

“Shippers don’t want us in their building.”

– Rene Robert, owner-operator

“The day before, they said they were shutting the rest areas down,” Legge said. “I didn’t realize they were going to shut all the food places down.”

They aren’t the only doors that have been shut to drivers, of course.

“Shippers don’t want us in their building. Instead, they bring us the paperwork to the truck, and we have to stay in our truck,” said Rene Robert, an owner-operator with Trappers Transport. After some “unscrupulous idiots” tried to break into a few of the company trailers loaded with fresh food, he was even advised to avoid non-secure truck stops or from parking at the side of B.C. roads.

Social distancing procedures have made their way into truck stops, in an effort to flatten the curve. (Photo: Doug McGowan)

Locked bathrooms

But locked bathroom doors have presented some of the most frustrating barriers of all, leading politicians and industry groups alike to push businesses to offer some essential services to the drivers who have been identified as an essential service.

“Why is the industry that is driving the supply chain consistently being refused to use washrooms to wash their hands at customer sites?” asked Guy Broderick of Toronto-based Apps Transport. “We have all heard Health Canada and the World Health Organization’s comments. The best way to fight this virus is to wash your hands.”

Even that practice comes with specific guidelines these days. Wash for 20 seconds, if you please. And forget the handshakes. Keep your distance, and maintain a buffer of six feet.

Serge Bukvic, TransPro Freight Systems

“There are a few awkward moments when it comes time to sign the bill of lading,” added Serge Bukvic, an LTL driver with TransPro Freight Systems. “You got to remember not to be offended, to keep your distance.”

But the steps are needed to stay healthy.

“You don’t want to be on the road. No drivers want to be. They want to stay home safe, but if you stay home now, you could use your job,” said Nissan Varghese, a driver based in P.E.I. He was worried about how the disease would spread in the early days of the pandemic. “If this thing flies around, that is going to be scary.”

He responded by hooking up to another load of the province’s potatoes, and headed south.

The focus on keeping clean to remain healthy has even meant adding wipedowns and washdowns to typical pre-trip and post-trip inspections. Cleaning solutions and hand sanitizer are added to the list of fluids that need to be gathered, along with the diesel, the oil, the windshield washer fluids.

Terry Van Ooyen, Challenger Motor Freight

“Every time, before and after I touch paperwork, I have a bottle of hand sanitizer I use,” said Terry Van Ooyen of Challenger Motor Freight. “When I wake up in the morning, I wipe down my truck with Lysol wipes. And around lunchtime, when I take my half-hour break, I do another wipedown, just in case I’ve picked up anything.”

But the trucks continue to roll – even in cases where traditional distribution schedules have been thrown into disarray.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said 44-year driver Keith McMurdo of Associated Grocers in Calgary, as he supported small and mid-sized grocery stores in Western Canada. Stores that typically needed nine pallets of goods a week were requesting 25 pallets or more to restock hoarded shelves in late March, as Covid-19 took hold in North America.

Generations Diner in Windsor, Ont., now prepares free meals for truck drivers twice a week, where volunteers wave signs declaring: Food For Truck Drivers.

Signs of support

There are new signs of support for the work, though.

While some doors have closed, others have opened. Sidney, B.C. blocked off large swaths of its downtown parking area for out-of-town truck drivers. Generations Diner in Windsor, Ont., uses donated food to feed drivers twice a week. Drivers can now shower and freshen up for free at the Holiday Inn and Suites in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que. The list of special offers for those who work behind the wheel grows by the day.

Lisa Smith had to lay off her staff at Lisa’s Lakehouse in Christina Lake, B.C. But she personally continues to feed the drivers who roll through. “I made the call and thought that those are the people we need to feed,” she said. “Those are the ones on the road.”

Drivers have been greeted by homemade signs and banners. Social media feeds are filled with messages to #ThankATrucker, recognizing the roles play as an essential service.

“In these extraordinary times, we have extraordinary heroes. Our truck drivers are these heroes,” said Ontario Deputy Premier Christine Elliott and Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney.

“Who would have ever thought of trucking in such an essential way?” said Erb Transport driver Lyoness Woodstock, taking a pause from his delivery in late March. “Two weeks ago, we were recognized as a necessary evil. My, how quickly things have changed.”

  • With files from Derek Clouthier, Abdul Latheef, and James Menzies
John G Smith

John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, Canadian Shipper, Inside Logistics, Solid Waste & Recycling, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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  • Hello John, I am a retired fleet maintenance manager effective December 31 2018, after 38 years with Cooney Transport in Belleville Ontario.
    Feel free to publish my comments!
    It is truly a sad state that it takes a pandemic like COVID-19 to wake up this country.
    I use to get extremely upset during my working years with regards to the little respect our truck drivers would get from the public and government officials. I had often said we need to pull all trucks off the highways for four weeks , fuel tankers, grocery trucks everything. We impose strict rules and regulations for trucking companies and drivers and yet we provide them NO proper rest areas nor allow them even a basic wash room at hundreds of companies they deliver to. Yes John far too many facilities do NOT allow truck drivers in their facilities. How many truck stops are there across this beautiful country for a driver to safely park over night when he or she is out of hours and the law states they must book off duty for 10 hours?
    How long would a company last if they took away the washrooms from all factory workers?
    We wonder why there is a North America shortage of AZ licensed transport drivers?
    Now transport drivers are being classified as an essential service!! Really, it is about time!
    Thank God for our truck drivers, they truly are our front line workers. With out them our nation would crawl to a stop. Thank God for the very few restaurant owners who honour our drivers by continually providing them meals and washroom facilities. How long would all of the Walmart super stores last or the production plants last if all trucks failed to make a pickup or delivery?
    Keep on trucking!! Build some proper rest areas!!

  • The locked bathrooms hurts both truck drivers and the homeless who live on the street and those who live their cars. This a big problem in both the U S and Ontario Canada. Government treatment of the homeless, under housed and truck drivers needed to looked at before this happened. All truck drivers can do now is keep the supply chains going until this over. At that point in time a complete review of trucking and insurance companies and perhaps truck drivers treatment and medical care in Canada and the U S . Many people will be happy to drive truck if pay and treatment improves. The Ontario government needs to review insurance companies and come up with a government option like B C has with premium assistance for new drivers ( bus ,truck, wheelchair van and buses). All companies need to come with a disaster plan before the end of this year along with all health units.