From a truck stop along Interstate 40 in Arizona, long-haul trucker Bob Hamilton says he has noticed a considerable lack of traffic on his regular runs from Villa Rica to the West Coast.
That’s no surprise; with many states, including Georgia, under mandatory shelter in place orders to control the spread of the coronavirus, there’s not a lot of motorists to jam up the highways that share the road with Hamilton’s big rig.
Hamilton works for East-West Express in Villa Rica, one of the hundreds of trucking companies that are now on the frontline of keeping the nation’s food and products moving during a time of pandemic. This infrastructure of 18-wheelers, and those who drive them, are vital to keeping store shelves stocked with goods, both for the sake of the shut-ins and for the national economy.
From the vantage of the cab of his Volvo sleeper tractor, Hamilton sees no problem so far in keeping those supplies coming.
“There are plenty of trucks. There’s plenty of freight moving,” he said. “From what I can see out here across I-40, there’s no shortage of trucks — and they’ve got something inside or they wouldn’t be rolling.”
But just because business is moving as usual doesn’t mean that it’s business as usual for America’s trucking companies. Terry Turner, safety director for East-West Express, said that other drivers have run into problems related to the near nationwide business shutdown.
Many drivers are finding it hard to find places to pull over for their federally-mandated rest periods because the rest stops have been closed, he said.
“Another thing our drivers are having a hard time doing is finding food,” Turner said.
Truck stops that are affiliated with fast-food restaurants will allow truckers to pick up a take-out order, but that’s not the same for other restaurants.
“Most of them are closed completely, or they’re doing take-out orders only and trucks can’t park there. A lot of drive-thru windows are not letting people just walk up.”
And there are other things missing. Unless a truck stop has a full-time cleaning staff, shower stalls are unavailable. So some truckers are having to take a sponge bath in the privacy of their sleeper cabs.
“A lot of our drivers are being resourceful,” Turner said. “They’re making their own hand sanitizer, or disinfectant wipes because you just can’t find it anywhere across the country.”
Drivers are also being proactive in keeping their rigs as virus-free as possible, wiping down door handles, keypads, filler caps, etc. — anything that they might touch or might be touched by someone else.
Social distancing, meaning keeping at least six feet away from other people, is also a problem for the drivers, Turner said. Once a trucker arrives at their destination, they are being asked to stay in their cab while the trucks are loaded or unloaded. Truckers can’t watch to make sure their trailers are being loaded properly, and their interaction with warehouse personnel is limited to cellphone calls.
East-West trucks haul such goods as carpeting and frozen chicken all the way from Villa Rica to the West Coast, where drivers pick up loads of produce and other goods and bring it all the way back to the Southeast. Hamilton reckons he drives 5,000 miles every week on a regular route that takes him through Texas, Arizona and up through the middle of California.
The company was founded in 1985 and has been based in Villa Rica since 1988. The company is unusual in that it partners its drivers with spouses or significant others. Hamilton makes his trips with his girlfriend, Kimberly Bishop, and their dog, Grinn.
He said he has not personally seen some of the problems that Turner describes. Passing through Arizona, he said he has noticed that authorities have just re-opened two trucker rest areas that had been closed for years.
But he and Kimberly are just as wary and careful as all the other company employees.
“We’ve pretty much stayed to ourselves the most part,” he said. “I don’t go out and I’m not overly social at the truck stops. I don’t go hang out at the lounges, I don’t hang out at the terminal. I pretty much keep to myself, for the most part.
“But we are more cognizant of trying to keep more distance from others, more probably out of fear of getting something from them than vice versa.”