CINCINNATI — As people across the nation scour grocery stores for toilet paper and masks, trucking and logistic companies are working hard to keep the supply chain flowing.
“It’s a whole new world out there,” said Kerry Byrne, president of Total Quality Logistics in Union Township in Clermont County.
Lacy Starling, president of Legion Logistics in Florence, agreed: “It’s just the Wild West out there for supply chain right now.”
Those who work in the world of logistics — getting goods from here to there — say they have never seen a time when the industry was such a roller-coaster ride. As the public learned of school closures, large group bans and stay-at-home orders, grocery store shelves emptied, causing suppliers to pick up the pace of manufacturing and delivering. That's when the roller-coaster cars were heading up the hill.
“Volumes in food and beverage have probably doubled over the last few weeks. So our teams are working around the clock to help some of the big retailers,” Byrne said.
Refrigerated trucks, for example, are hot.
“Those drivers, they’re in high demand right now and they’re really, really busy,” Byrne added.
At the same time, although some areas like food, beverage and medical supplies are in demand, others are not. That's when the roller coaster started downhill.
“Auto, industrials, for example, that’s not very busy because you have so many factories that are shut down," Byrne said.
For truckers, that change causes one of a number of bumps in the road. Having freight to transport to one location and nothing to pick up when they arrive shifts the way truckers and logistics companies balance their operations.
“If there’s nothing shipping out of a state because nothing’s being manufactured, it’s really hard to get a driver to go into that state, because then they get stuck and they can’t find freight to get them back out again,” Starling said.
The prevalence of coronavirus compounds the situation. Truck drivers find themselves driving into areas of the country considered "hot spots" for the virus. Call this the inverted loop in the coaster. Many are going into areas with high numbers of infected people and very little protection.
Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, sent a letter to President Donald Trump last week warning of the danger truck drivers are facing.
The letter read, in part: "They run in and out of the hot zones and without question they are exposed. They don’t have access to PPE (personal protective equipment) or any practical means to know when they may be falling ill or any practical solution if they need treatment or self-isolation."
Starling said truck drivers have a real concern about their health.
“(It's) the level of anxiety that we all have, about, 'Am I going to get sick?'" she said. "'Am I going to get sick and I’m going to be 2,000 miles from home?'”
She added that she sees those hauling large loads across long distances as front-line workers, just like grocery store and medical workers.
“I think that we have to think about truck drivers in that way. That they’re moving essential goods across the country in often very difficult circumstances,” she said.
The trucking and logistics industries are considered among the essential workforce identified by the federal government.
Meanwhile, there are more protocols being built into the logistics process to determine if a driver has been exposed to COVID-19 on a route.
“When they are picking up or receiving, sometimes they will be asked to sign, you know a document stating that they haven’t been coming from a certain hot spot for example, or that they haven’t been ill and those type of things,” Byrne said.
Byrne said the best thing drivers can do in an area known to have an outbreak of the virus is to stay in their cabs.
At the same time, traveling long distances through cities and states without easy access to restaurants and restrooms is another problem truck drivers are experiencing.
"You can't drive a truck through a drive-thru," Starling said.
One possible solution is allowing food trucks to operate at some rest stops. The Federal Highway Administration announced last week that it will not enforce rules against commercial operations while the federal emergency declaration is in place.
The timing of the impact of Coronavirus on the trucking industry comes after a tough 2019. The trucking industry experienced a recession that was just ending by the beginning of 2020. Starling said it will be difficult for some trucking and freight companies to survive.