Retta Hyatt has been a driver for less than a year, and in that short time she has become accustomed to life on the road. She and her traveling companion, a chocolate lab named Jamaica, are witnessing the COVID-19 pandemic from behind the wheel of a big rig. Sounds safe, right? Well, yes and no.
Retta drives three weeks on and has one week (five days) off. The open road called to her after years in an office doing corporate sales. As a woman in her mid-50s who recently made a life-altering decision to be a truck driver, this is all new and exciting territory—and in a pandemic, no less.
Boynton Beach, Florida, is where Retta calls home, but she and her 53’ dry van run freight mostly out West through Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Colorado and back. She picks up from distribution centers (DCs) and manufacturers. She then delivers to other DCs, or sometimes the big box stores themselves, like Walmart, Home Depot and Lowe’s.
“Colorado was the first place I started to see signs of the pandemic unfold,” said Retta. “They brought out two whole pallets of face masks on the dock and we were told anyone could buy up to ten boxes. I thought that was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard. Why in the world was everybody over-reacting? I didn’t buy any.” Retta admits that she now wishes she had bought them all.
It was also in Colorado that she realized just how crazy things were getting. She was dispatched to pick up a load of water for Walmart going to Kansas City. The water manufacturer said that late February, early March was not normally their busy season. Heck, it is still winter, but within days, their orders had increased exponentially. They told Retta it was just bizarre.
In all the pandemonium, you might expect that drivers would have to deal with longer wait and detention times at the docks, but for Retta, this has not been an issue. “No holdups there,” she said. “They are trying to move us in and out faster than ever. I think they must have hired more people in the warehouses because everything is on fire right now. I am delivering either live load, live unload (meaning the driver waits while the trailer is loaded or unloaded) or drop and hook, (meaning the trailer is dropped off and another one picked up without any loading or unloading wait times). I get in and out of there quickly.”
Retta explains that she doesn’t need to load or unload freight herself so exposure to the virus from dock workers is minimal. The only time she needs to get out of the truck is to have paperwork signed. “When I do get out of the truck, people at DCs are far enough apart that it doesn’t matter. They do have hand sanitizer at some of the locations, but people aren’t wearing gloves and masks at most places. My experience is that out West, places like Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, they are much less cautious about that kind of thing than back East.”
The truck stops are a whole other topic, according to Retta. Some of the larger, more heavily traveled ones are a “mess” and are not taking any obvious precautions. “I was in one last week and people were bumping up against me in line to pay—no social distancing at all. And none of the employees were wearing gloves. They had a box of them on the counter, where people could sneeze on them,” she said sarcastically, “but none on anyone’s hands! The bathrooms were so bad they made me want to take a shower the minute I got out of there. It’s just crazy!”
One of Retta’s favorite travel stop facilities, also a chain, is completely the opposite. “The bathrooms are always clean, but since COVID-19, they are spotless,” she reports. What used to be the self-serve area for coffee, soda machines, and roller-grill items, is now blocked off. She explains further why she feels more comfortable going to this favored truck stop, “Only store employees can get back in that area and they have to serve them to you, and they are always gloved.”
Retta said most of the restaurants in the truck stops are closed, which doesn’t make much difference to her. “I don’t eat that crap, anyway, but I have to admit every once in a while it is nice to get a hot breakfast. I feel sorry for some drivers, though, who eat every meal in the truck stop restaurants. It’s a chance for them to sit and talk to other truckers and socialize. I think they really look forward to it, but now, no one can sit down at all, they have to eat in their trucks or outside somewhere.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, there were complaints that truck drivers were being turned away by fast food restaurants because they weren’t letting people inside and their rigs are too big to go through the drive-thru. But then, things began to change. Chains like McDonald's and Wendy’s heard driver’s pleas and offered them an app that allows them to order and pay. Some restaurants are even offering truckers discounts, like Ruby Tuesday. Retta said, “Texas Roadhouse is offering parking and curbside service where they will bring the food out to you. I haven’t taken advantage of that yet but it’s nice know you can get a decent meal on the road.”
Another observation Retta has made from behind the wheel is that she and Jamaica are often the only ones within sight on the road. “When I was driving through Kansas City, I had to take a photo and send it to my friend because we were the only ones on the road, except for a few other trucks, and that was at rush hour. On some of the major interstates you see trucks and RVs, and that’s about it.”
What has changed most for truck drivers? Fewer delays because of less traffic, and according to Retta, every state that had road work to be done is getting it finished ahead of schedule. “I think after this pandemic is all said and done, our roads are going to be in much better shape!”
About two weeks ago, on her way back home, Retta said that there was no law enforcement on the roads and all the weigh stations were closed until she hit Florida. People were out walking around on the streets, which seemed like such a contrast to areas like Kansas City. But when the shelter in place mandate came down last week, and she had to get back on the road, police were heavily patrolling the state line.
It was nice talking to Retta as she is an old acquaintance from high school. I am glad she is staying safe and living a life she loves on the open road. It reminds me of how thankful we should be that these men and women are out there driving across the country to keep food on our tables and our stores stocked with groceries in such an uncertain and unsettling time.