Joe Klassen hasn’t been home to his wife in Elbow, Sask. for five and a half weeks.
Going home is not a risk he’s willing to take since he’s been all over the continent in U.S. states at the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic — Iowa, Nevada, Oregan, Idaho, Alaska, Kansas, Washington. It’s an itinerary that would be inconceivable to most Canadians now facing a closed border, and stern instructions to just stay home.
But as North America is quickly becoming the new epicentre of a global crisis, Klassen, 27, is among tens of thousands of truck drivers steering into the storm.
They’re staying away from their families, and they’re running out of places to stop for a shower, toilet and hot meal. But they’re not slowing down. With food, cleaning supplies and medical equipment needing transport, officials in both the U.S. and Canada have named truckers an essential service that must keep running.
Klassen’s not complaining.
“We’ve all got to make our own sacrifices,” he said. “I think all we can — as long as we don’t want to shut the economy down — everyone needs to do their part.”
So he keeps driving.
“I think there’s a lot more people who are a lot more on the front-lines than we are,” he said. “The nurses — those are the unsung heroes.”
The scale of highway trade that exists between Canada and the U.S. means truckers are now the largest group of people still crossing a border that’s under unprecedented restrictions amid COVID-19. According to the Canada Border Services Agency, 88,290 truck drivers crossed the Canada-U. S. border last week, accounting for almost half of all land border crossings. The same week last year, truckers accounted for just 10 per cent of the total.
For now, these are the people supplying Canadians with the things they need the most. According to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, more than $ 2 billion in goods cross the Canada-U. S. border each day, 70 per cent by truck.
And as the economy has wound down everywhere else due to COVID-19, trucking has only seen a moderate slowdown. Statistics from the commercial vehicle data analysis company Geotab show the commercial transportation industry in Canada and the U.S. is operating at around 85 per cent capacity for heavy trucks, and transportation to grocery stores is still at 90 per cent. Meanwhile, non-commercial car traffic has dropped to 65 per cent of pre-COVID-19 levels.
Still, for drivers, the on-the-road realities of the COVID-19 pandemic mean life is far from business as usual. On the one hand, they say they’re getting more appreciation from the public for going out and doing what they do — and there’s less traffic.
On the other, the closure of public spaces across the country is taking a serious toll — in a sparsely populated country like Canada, where washrooms aren’t easy to come by on a good day, more and more rest stops are closing their doors, leaving truckers with a choice between holding it in or storing their waste in their trucks for hours at a time.
The problem prompted Ontario Premier Doug Ford to make a plea to rest stop operators Monday to open their washrooms to truckers — and also take the time to sanitize them so they don’t become COVID-19 transmission hot spots.
“Have a heart,” Ford said. “Open up the washrooms for these truckers.”
The Ontario government also committed to keeping all 23 ONroute highway service centres in southern Ontario open for takeout, and washrooms. And on Thursday, the government said it would also set up portable washrooms at 32 truck inspections stations.
Driving the flat-deck truck he’s owned and operated for the last four years, Klassen is making his way across the U.S. and back up to Canada in a way that’s not so different from his usual schedule.
He’s typically on the road two to three weeks at a time, and his wife sometimes joins him so that they can be together.
But because she has a family member with a vulnerable immune system, they decided to stay apart while the pandemic tears through North America.
The lack of washrooms has been one of the most noticeable changes. To truckers, sparsely populated areas of Canada are already something like bathroom black-holes compared to the much more densely populated U.S. Now, Klassen estimates only about half of the fast food and rest stop bathrooms that are usually open are still letting truckers in.
“It is what it is, right?” he wrote in an email from Kenora, Ont., near the border with Manitoba, Tuesday.
“It’s tough on the drivers that way when you don’t have facilities,” said Jeff Holmes, who helps run Holmes Transport, the family business in Mississauga. “They’re still doing it. They know they have an essential job that they need to be doing. They’re self-sustaining in their truck but they do need facilities.”
With restaurants closed, “most of the guys are living off sandwiches,” he said. “They’re picking up what they can. Some stops you can pick up carry-out food. But you know what it’s like — after a while, you’d like to sit down and have a meal.”
Roy Jessup, who drives an overnight route between Vancouver and Calgary, said the pandemic has brought some pleasant changes. There are fewer passenger vehicles on the road, and those that are seem to be a bit more courteous. Drivers are changing lanes more readily in what Jessup interprets as an act of solidarity with “essential” workers like him.
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“People will let me in a bit easier, they’ll move out of my way,” he said. “Before I would have to put on my signal and wait and wait.”
The rest of the continent is adjusting to the idea of social distancing, but that part is not new to a lot of drivers, Jessup said. And even the gloomy news is far-off most of the time.
“I’m in a truck and I’m kind of removed from it, I’m listening to my songs, I’m not taking it all in. I’m kind of isolated in that sense,” he said. “I know this is all going on around me but my life hasn’t really changed.”
But there are the times when it sinks in — the note of anxiety in his wife’s voice when they talk on the phone, the fact that groups of drivers no longer sit together for a hot meal at the truck stop.
“In the back of my head, I know this is serious I have to be careful about who I see,” he said.
The Canadian Trucking Alliance said it’s grateful that ports and warehouses where goods are loaded and off-loaded — on both sides of the border — have developed protocols to keep drivers at a safe distance, that restaurants like McDonald’s have apps so truckers can order takeout without trying to drive a semi through a drive-thru. They also thanked the federal and provincial governments for keeping washrooms and restaurants open along the main highways.
“Out of a lot of bad is coming a lot of positive co-operation and strength,” said Stephen Laskowski, the alliance’s president. “It’s a tough time for everybody but this bad situation has brought the best out of a lot of people and it’s appreciated.”
Laskowski said some Canadian truckers who usually travel both south and north with a full load are now running empty half the time due to the closure of some manufacturing facilities and stores. That leads to lost revenue, especially for truckers who own and operate their vehicles — but it hasn’t changed the fact that Canadians need truckers to keep on trucking.
“About 50 per cent of the food products on Ontarians’ tables, or indeed across Canada, quite frankly, come from the United States,” Laskowski said. “So a lot of trucks are now travelling to the United States empty to bring that food product home.”
The bathroom problem is particularly hard on the short-haul and in-city truckers who typically rely on fast-food restaurants like Tim Hortons or McDonald’s, which are now mostly open only for takeout.
In Vancouver, the port authority has set up portable trailer bathrooms with running water — ones that had been used by the region’s film industry — to help delivery drivers and the general public.
“That’s appreciated,” said Christopher Monette, director of public affairs for Teamsters Canada, “but it’s not something we can be doing across the country.” He added: “We need to find a solid solution.”
Carrie Tompkins, who lives in southern Alberta and has been working in the trucking industry for 30 years, moderates a popular Facebook group for truckers to talk about shared experiences. She said the availability of facilities to drivers has been a problem throughout her career, and hopes the new-found recognition of the trucking industry as “essential” will help change that.
“There are a good number of people out there who do treat drivers humanely and who are kind enough to offer facilities,” Tompkins said. But she thinks decency calls for more to be done.
Tompkins, who drove long-haul for two decades before taking on local-only routes, noted that the bigger trucks at least have room to store drivers’ “eliminations” until they reach a rest stop.
Two weeks ago, Tompkins faced the worst-case scenario when she made a delivery from a farmer to a grocery store — a trip that took several hours — only to be refused access to the washroom at the grocery store.
It left her with few options but to stay uncomfortable, she said.
“Human kindness needs to take over and people need to consider how they would feel if it was them standing there,” she said.