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Driving economy: 'Essential' truckers keep rolling to deliver food, vital medical supplies

Driving economy: 'Essential' truckers keep rolling to deliver food, vital medical supplies

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WATERLOO — Henry Hinz-Shirley has been screened for coronavirus in five different states.

“That’s something, isn’t it?,” said the professional truck driver, smiling. But Hinz-Shirley, who was taking a rest break at a Waterloo truck stop this week, said he’s proud to be doing his part in the battle being waged against COVID-19.

While many Americans are sheltering in place, the nation’s truck drivers are on the road hauling food and goods for stocking grocery stores and transporting vital medical equipment and supplies for hospitals and medical centers.

American truckers have been deemed “essential employees” by the federal government because their work is so important in keeping supply chains open and delivering their goods in a timely manner.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has temporarily suspended some “hours of service” regulations that say drivers can work 14 hours days, but must spend only 11 hours behind the wheel before taking off-road breaks. Now that rule no longer applies to drivers hauling loads of emergency supplies — medical equipment and supplies related to coronavirus, groceries, fuel and materials for building temporary quarantine or COVID-19-related housing. Drivers, however, must take a mandatory minimum 10-hour break after dropping their loads.

Public and driver safety continue to be the top priority for trucking firms, said Brenda Neville, president and CEO of the Iowa Motor Truck Association, based in Des Moines. Many companies have equipped drivers with personal protection kits that contain such items as gloves and masks.

“Truckers are doing the same thing they do every single day. They are committed to doing this job in good times and challenging times. COVID-19 has placed a burden on the trucking industry with the whole supply chain changing daily in response to consumers’ buying habits right now. Trucking is doing a great job responding to that,” Neville explained.

As a show of appreciation to truckers, IMTA staff spent several days this week handing out 1,000 freshly made box lunches to drivers passing through weigh stations in Jasper and Dallas counties.

Kenny Weinrich would simply like to sit down for a few minutes and enjoy a meal looking at something other than the windshield of his truck cab. “I’m getting sick of fast food, I can tell you that,” said the livestock hauler from Jackson, Mo. Weinrich makes it to the Waterloo area about twice a week “hauling up cattle and bringing back pigs.” He describes the atmosphere on the road as “edgy, but the truck stops are taking good care of me.” He can get cleaned up, fuel up his rig and “buy stuff for the grandkids.”

Travel centers and truck stops provide food, fuel and the other essential amenities needed by professional drivers, including showers. NATSO, which represents the travel plaza and truck stop industry, confirmed its members are remaining open to fuel and feed drivers.

“Truck drivers are depending on truck stops and travel centers as they deliver food and life-saving supplies. Our members are committed to doing their part during the nation’s response to this emergency,” said Lisa Mullings, NATSO president and CEO. “Fuel retailers are ‘essential’ businesses that must remain open even if other ‘nonessential’ businesses are forced to close.”

Hinz-Shirley hauls Tyson Foods products for his trucking firm to destinations throughout the Midwest, as well as points west, southwest and as far south as Georgia. He has seen barricaded public rest stops in some states, particularly when the public health emergency began unfolding.

“A driver has got to find places to stop and sleep and eat. The other thing is, the roadside parking where truckers are allowed to park fills up fast and truck stop parking fills up fast, too. Where are you supposed to park? You can’t park alongside the road because that’s illegal.”

Hinz-Shirley described driving an additional 150 miles Monday to find an available parking spot to stop and get his 10 hours of sleep.

Neville said truckers face road challenges on a daily basis, but during this emergency “we’re seeing some rest areas are closed, or drivers aren’t able to use restroom or shower facilities. People don’t realize the impact that has on truckers.”

For example, Pennsylvania closed its rest stops when COVID-19 shutdowns began, and IMTA joined with the American Trucking Associations to pressure leaders at the Federal Highway Administration and PennDOT to reopen rest stops for truck parking. The turnpike commission re-opened 17 service plazas with indoor restroom facilities.

Rick Cole of Eddyville hauls food waste from college campuses, hospitals and other institutions, but with colleges shut down he expects his job will slow down as well. “My hours are still up right now, but all of this is going to force a slowdown at some point,” he said.

Like other drivers, Cole is not overly concerned about contracting coronavirus “because I’m always social distancing in my truck. I’m by myself most of the time, and I don’t go into many businesses. I’m also washing my hands a lot.”

While truckers are doing their jobs, Neville said small acts of kindness are appreciated. “One driver said he’d stopped for a meal and couldn’t go through the drive-thru, and a couple asked him what he wanted, went through the drive-thru and bought his lunch.

“Now more than ever, just share the road with truckers — maybe wave at them instead of flipping them off.”

Coronavirus update Northeast Iowa

Coronavirus update Northeast Iowa

Latest local coverage of the coronavirus  COVID-19 pandemic.

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"People ... have contacted us and said, 'You know what? I never thought I'd be in this situation, but I am.' And I said, 'That's what the Food Bank is here for.'"

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