Social distancing is nothing new for Jonathan Williams — as a truck driver, he’s been doing it for the past 25 years, traveling long distances with only himself for company.
Williams, 59, operates an open-deck trailer that last week was filled with guard rails for a bridge project in Massachusetts. Recently, he has been trekking back and forth between Arizona and Massachusetts, sleeping in his truck’s cabin, delivering anything he can get loaded onto his rig.
Even as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced a majority of people to work from home, Williams, like most of the nation’s 3.5 million drivers, has kept rolling, trying to mitigate unprecedented supply chain disruptions by continuing to move goods around the nation.
“There is a heroic, quiet nature about what they are doing,” said Claude Pumilia, CEO of the online freight marketplace DAT Solutions. “They are continuing to drive and make the supply chain work — these are people on the front lines.”
Drivers themselves seem less eager to acknowledge the heroic aspect of their jobs in the midst of the health crisis.
“I am not too concerned about it. I just stay away from people, keep my hands washed, and go about my normal day,” Williams said, taking a break at the Framingham service plaza on the Massachusetts Turnpike..
But even going about his normal day, which can include up to 11 hours of driving, the Pittsburgh native faces challenges because of pandemic-related restrictions in multiple states.
Simple pleasures, like sitting in a restaurant for dinner, are pretty much on hold.
“I don’t care about seeing people — and I can eat breakfast and lunch off the deck of my trailer — but when it comes down to my evening meal, I like to sit down and relax and enjoy some decent food,” he said. “And I don’t want to do that in the truck I have been in for 11 hours straight.”
Ultimately, Williams said, it is the “luck of the draw” every time he drives through a state in terms of how its COVID-19 response will affect his daily routine.
“It seems like it is more on this end of the country than the middle,” he said. "The middle of the country is still kind of flexible — they are taking precautions, but they are not overboard.”
Robert Carroll, who was delivering trees from Tennessee to a farm in Medford last week, said closed restaurants have it made it more difficult for him to find food. Luckily, he’s always stocked up on nutrition shakes from Walmart, in case he finds himself in a pinch.
“You can get a good day or a bad day,” the Connecticut native said while his truck was being unloaded. “When you find food, you have to take the food out and eat in the truck — but at the same time you don’t mind, because you are wondering if you could have been eating next to a person [with COVID-19].”
He said he started to see the effects of the coronavirus two weeks ago when a usually busy rest area in Connecticutwas practically empty.
“Normally you walk in and it is bustling with people, but there was almost nobody there,” he said. “A young lady was wearing a mask to protect herself, and it was obvious to me that she was scared.”
But regardless, the trucking industry is booming.
Last week, the national load-to-truck ratio — how many loads of freight need to be moved, compared with trucks available — was up 150 percent from the same time last year, according to DAT Solutions. And it has been steadily climbing for the past eight weeks.
John Anthony was delivering pork last week to a distribution center in Wilmington, and he said he’s been getting more loads from food companies such as Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms.
“That’s more miles for me, because stores need more food,” the 31-year-old Georgia native said.
But Carroll who has been driving trucks for 28 years, worries there might be a slowdown for the types of freight he has been moving. Nurseries are not scrambling to restock trees, he said, during what would normally be the start of a busy season for yard work and landscaping.
“I’m worried that I’m going to run out of work in a week or two,” he said. “People can still go out and buy trees, but they won’t want to because of the economy.”
He’s also concerned about his health.
“I do have some anxiety,” the 64-year-old said. “I think some truck drivers are staying home out of fear, and I worry that just by luck of the draw [I’ll get it].”
Pumilia, of DAT Solutions, said he’s heard the same concerns from drivers who are aware of the risk of traveling during the pandemic.
“Some drivers are worried about bringing an infection back to their families,” he said. “They are kind of quarantined in their cabs, but they worry about interactions at truck stops and places where they pick up shipments.”
For now, however, most drivers are trying to focus on the few positive aspects of the coronavirus, like less traffic, as they continue to do their essential work.
“They are out there, putting themselves at risk making sure they are delivering,” said Jeff Hopper, chief marketing officer of DAT Solutions. “Some of the amenities they rely on to make their route are shut down; they are going above and beyond the call of duty.”