Truckers ‘keep plugging,’ but worry about coronavirus quarantines

Truckers ‘keep plugging,’ but worry about coronavirus quarantines

US average dry van spot rates rose in early March as shippers drew down inventories. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is beginning to affect US trucking, but its impact isn’t necessarily what was expected. Truck drivers who haul consumer goods, especially healthcare and cleaning products, are lining up to pick up loads, and getting better rates, as US consumers purchase toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and other emergency supplies en masse.

US truckers have yet to face — and hopefully won’t — the kind of restrictions and obstacles truckers in China dealt with, where many drivers were caught up in quarantines, which delayed factories that restarted production lines getting goods to ports. But some US truck drivers have reported being asked to sign coronavirus declarations or waivers at distribution centers.

That's a small hint at what truck drivers could face if the situation in the United States escalates. US truckers may not face the type of restrictions imposed in China, or even Italy — thanks to differences, so far, in the extent of the outbreak in those countries and the nature of trucking networks there. But there could be more speed bumps ahead for US truck drivers beyond paperwork.

Potential restrictions on truck drivers — and therefore on what has been until now readily available truck capacity in the United States — is one factor keeping shippers awake at night as they prepare for a surge in imports from China in late April or early May. Restrictions on capacity would, in turn, push up trucking rates that have been depressed for a year.

Shippers requiring drivers to confirm they’re not among the infected are worried not just about their employees, but about what might happen if a distribution, warehouse, or manufacturing plant were shut down because of exposure to coronavirus. Those who scoff at that possibility should look to the containment zone imposed this week in New Rochelle, New York.

More than 100 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Westchester County, most linked to New Rochelle, but the state-imposed zone is not aimed at people, but facilities, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday, CNBC reported. The idea is to prevent large gatherings of people at places of worship, schools, and “other large institutions,” New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson said in a statement.

In the case of a similar outbreak near a more commercial or industrial area, limitations on “large gatherings” and institutions might well be extended to big box stores and distribution centers, which may have more visitors per day than many houses of worship see in a month. New Rochelle’s containment zone does not restrict movement or small businesses — although it's safe to say business in the area will be slow.

Truckload spot rates start to climb

Spot market truckload rates ticked up in the first week of March, according to load board operator DAT Solutions, as coronavirus came to dominate the news, raising concerns about the spread of the virus and the dearth of imports at the US ports. US dry-van spot rates that averaged $1.79 per mile in February rose to $1.82 per mile on average by March 8.

There were bigger swings on particular lanes, such as Chicago to Los Angeles. Spot pricing on that route rose 9 cents to $1.56 per mile, while outbound rates from LA to Chicago dropped 2 cents to $1.20 per mile. As DAT said in a log post, that’s “a lot of miles for not a lot of money,” thanks to the inbound-outbound imbalance attributable to Chinese factory shutdowns.

“For now, spot van prices are trending up seasonally, with more lane rates rising than falling,” Peggy Dorf, DAT market analyst, said in a blog post Monday. Consumer hoarding “could boost demand for dry van equipment, benefiting carriers and logistics companies of all sizes,” she said. Retailers reportedly are drawing down inflated inventories and replenishing goods.

‘Stop touching everything!’

That’s led to long truck lines at locations such as Procter & Gamble’s plant in Mehoopany, Pennsylvania, where a picture posted by a driver on Facebook shows a queue of tractor-trailers headed to the plant. The Mehoopany plant, Procter & Gamble’s largest US manufacturing site, produces Charmin-brand toilet paper and Bounty paper towels and napkins.

“With people buying toilet paper, at least they’re keeping the truckers busy,” a commentator quipped. “We will have enough toilet paper,” one truck driver said in response to questions from JOC.com posted on Facebook by Sirius XM Road Dog Trucking News. His biggest concern: “Getting stuck somewhere away from home and not being able to make money.”

Several truck drivers complained coverage of the coronavirus is overblown. “Just keep yourself clean — is that so difficult?” one trucker wrote. “Stop touching everything!” Other drivers were more concerned about the general impact the coronavirus might have on the US economy. But the prospect of getting sick and being quarantined was top of mind for many truckers.

“One of the biggest concerns for me is not having work,” another truck driver said. “I have bills and other things that require me to drive, load, and unload product,” the driver added. “Being under a quarantine or in a hospital, or even stuck in the truck for two weeks to let the virus run its course, would harm me as I wouldn’t be able to efficiently do my job.”

Many truckers “can’t afford to shut down,” and will try to “keep plugging,” possibly even if they’re sick, said another driver. “We will be spreaders [of the virus], unfortunately.” Also, “I have been questioned twice [by shipper customers] about having the virus and told I can’t enter if I may have come in contact with it.” That may be a more common experience in coming weeks.

Forms obtained by JOC.com from truckers indicate some companies are asking all visitors, not just truckers, to affirm they do not have coronavirus, haven’t experienced cold or flu-like symptoms in the last 14 days, and have not traveled to places where an outbreak has occurred. Truckers should expect more questions from their customers and at delivery docks.

Contact William B. Cassidy at bill.cassidy@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @willbcassidy.