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How Hard Could Coronavirus Hit Supply Chains? It Depends On What Truckers Decide.

Nikki Chaffin used to drive a big rig, but her immune system was compromised a few years ago when she contracted a nasty case of Lyme disease. Now, she stays home and dispatches while her husband, Jon Vance, hits the road.

Vance was in Illinois in his standard 53-foot box truck in January when the novel coronavirus was being predicted to hit the U.S. A few weeks later, he stopped home just long enough to drop off supplies. The couple devised their own sanitizing system.

"He comes to the door," Chaffin said. "I'm fully masked — double-masked with an N95 and a paper surgical mask, eye protection and gloves. He's sprayed with Lysol and puts the bags in the door. I pull him in and spray him again while I am gloved."

As the pandemic spreads, the fear of infecting loved ones who are at higher risk of succumbing to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has followed, injecting itself in every interaction.

Trucking is key during the coronavirus pandemic.

That includes Vance's goodbye to Chaffin last month.

"He kissed me on the forehead and said, 'Now go alcohol that,'" she said.

She doesn't expect to see him again until the coronavirus pandemic is over. He'll continue to live in his truck, which has a bed, a microwave and a refrigerator. 

Vance is one of about 1.8 million heavy truck and tractor-trailer drivers in the U.S. He told Bisnow that over 20 years in trucking, "I didn't really feel all that important."

But with the virus encroaching, he had come to see himself and his colleagues as important as the surgeons, nurses and janitors keeping hospitals open. He couldn't bear the thought of sitting at home when some patient's life might depend on his bringing food or equipment. 

As the American public reckons with the reality of the coronavirus, leaders have been trying to reassure the public that supply chains will not be significantly disrupted. But the calculus running through truckers' heads is complicated: Why should they risk slogging 700 miles each day, dodging tiny, invisible, possibly lethal germs along the way, to deliver toilet paper and canned corn to the panicky masses? For what price? 

Alix Miller, the vice president of the Florida Trucking Association, which represents trucking companies, industrial facilities, and huge logistics players like FedEx, UPS, Walmart and Amazon, said Monday that trucks are getting supplies and are still able to make deliveries. It just might take longer than usual.

"What needs to be stressed is that these drivers are taking all of the precautions to stay safe because they have to be on the road," Miller said. "They will be on the road through this whole pandemic to keep everyone supplied and give everyone what they need. It's remarkable that no one notices the supply chain until it's really needed." 

Chaffin has only been scheduling her husband for runs that would keep him in nearby states.

"He's so susceptible," she said. "It's a dirty environment. They've got 500-gallon fuel tanks. [Drivers share germs by] typing on the keypad at the fuel desk, filling up their coffee or fountain drinks, signing signatures with the same pen. Showers, restrooms, the cooler door, hot dog tongs! Multiply that by thousands of drivers on the road." 

The coronavirus has prompted an "unprecedented surge" in demand for goods, which was straining capacity and bumping up rates, trucking publication FreightWaves reports. Nationally, volumes were up 16.5% year-over-year. The president's declaration of a national emergency had resulted in a suspension of "hours of service" rules that limit how how long a driver can work without a break.

There was so much demand that drivers were turning down gigs. FreightWaves reported that Allentown, Pennsylvania, carriers and brokers are rejecting 15.5% of loads, and Quincy, Illinois, truckers are turning down nearly a third of jobs.

"Good day to be a carrier," said one truck driver on an industry Facebook group, reporting that there were two loads of goods ready to go for every available truck. Others reported as many as four loads per truck in some places.

Chaffin said that while there are some big fleets and full-time drivers, many operators are independent. While some truckers have deals to haul a number of loads per month for a regular client, others work on a tenuous gig-by-gig basis. In this system, a manufacturer or shipper will pay a rate — which varies — to a broker, who in turn posts on a "load board" seeking drivers.  

"They list the load date and time," Chaffin said. "You call to discuss a rate. They want to cover the load as cheap as possible so they can make something off the driver. They're the middleman. An evil necessity."

She negotiates the rate — usually about $2 per mile, though brokers might try to get it down to $1.60, or even $1 — and brokers make their money on the difference between that and what the shipper pays. Online, some truckers noted rates of $3 and even $4+ per mile for some loads, and debated whether they were worth taking. 

America's food supply depends on truckers.

Vance said that with Chaffin booking an average of $1K per day in work, he can take home around $70K annually. He works a 70-hour week, then takes 34 hours off. Truckers have a 14-hour-straight window during which they can drive, but loading and unloading can take two to three of those hours.

They used to keep logs on paper — "comic books," Vance joked — which drivers notoriously fudged so they could adjust their own schedules to nap or stop during bad weather. But new required tracking devices made that impossible. Furthermore, there had been a niche set of drivers hauling nothing but steel, but under Trump administration tariffs, that business dried up and they now create more competition for other work, Vance said.

Truckers in Facebook groups were excited by the coronavirus boost to their paychecks, but also wondered if consumer spending would stop once everyone's restocked. They wondered if restaurants, gas stations and rest stops would be open. Some went to pick up their loads, only to find they weren't ready, since warehouse staff were out sick. And, of course, drivers feared they could catch coronavirus themselves.

Miller said that the Department of Transportation and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration were working to keep the system running smoothly, making sure that gas would be available along routes, and that hygienic steps were being implemented.

For example, typically, drivers back their trucks up to warehouses or stores, and facility staff unload it. Drivers might help open up the truck doors, and go inside to take a break. Now, however, they are taking precautions and staying in their trucks.

Vance described a different view from the road.

"It's pretty shocking in some areas," he said on a phone call from Iowa. "The truck stop I am at right now, there's not one single step being taken. No hand sanitizer." 

Chaffin noticed a load board advertising a run from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest — 1,700 miles — paying $4,100.

"I've never seen that," she said. "I wonder if they can't find anyone to go into Washington State," the U.S. epicenter of the virus outbreak. 

Vance said time would tell whether other drivers shared his commitment to staying on the road, which he said was "probably because I'm a socialist." He said most of his fellow truckers are indeed red-state, Fox News-watching, Trump-loving conservatives, even though he thinks the policies floated by progressive politicians would likely help blue-collar workers more, fighting for protections like health insurance, which he doesn't have. 

So far, the roads seemed as busy as ever, Vance said. He noticed that rush hour seemed slightly lighter than usual, but "people are making up for it the rest of day. I haven't seen any smaller lines at McDonald's."