The weeks-long trek from western Canada to the eastern seaboard is normally a piece of cake for veteran truck driver Gary Creelman.
Seven years ago, Creelman was hauling fuel along Northwest Territories ice roads to tundra diamond mines. He will never forget when he was slammed by a blinding blizzard — with 150-km/h wind gusts and a not “real cold” -25 C — that trapped him in his truck for four days without any way to contact the outside world, before he was rescued.
But as COVID-19 barrelled through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and rest areas, restaurants and washrooms closed, the 70-year-old Edmonton resident said he’s never felt more alone.
“It’s hard to describe that sense of isolation,” Creelman told HuffPost Canada. “Every time I sneezed or coughed, I thought, ‘Is this it?’ The fear of getting sick 2,500 miles from family and nursing the sickness in the bunk of my truck creates an almost unexplainable sense of loneliness.”
He is one of about 650,000 Canadians working in transportation and logistics, reported Trucking HR Canada. The industry was exempted from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s emergency efforts to close the Canada-U.S. border to stop the spread of COVID-19, as truck drivers provide the essential service of delivering food and supplies across North America.
However, as the continent has by and large shut down all non-essential services, drivers are struggling to find open businesses where they can buy food, use the washroom, and rest. Creelman said he’s yet to see a coordinated response from governments to keep drivers safe from the novel coronavirus and provide them with consistent access to basic services.
COVID-19 was a blip in the news when Creelman loaded his truck with peat moss and made the journey from Alberta to British Columbia in late February. When he arrived in Chilliwack, B.C. to pick up specialty flour, nearby Washington State declared an emergency and reported the U.S.’s first COVID-19 death.
Watch: What to expect at the closed U.S.-Canada border during the pandemic. Story continues below.
Creelman adjusted his route to avoid the region, and instead cut across the Prairies and the wilds of North and South Dakota where COVID-19 was still considered another place’s problem. He arrived in New Jersey as the state ramped up its emergency efforts to combat the rapidly growing number of cases.
The warehouse where Creelman dropped off his load of flour barred any truck drivers from using the washrooms. At his next stop in Pennsylvania, where he picked up flooring, the facility had the foresight to set up a portapotty in the yard, he said. The state, however, had closed all 17 of its service centres, a decision that has since been eased.
“Things were happening so fast,” Creelman said. “All of a sudden the state could decide it’s in total lockdown, then what do you do? What’s going to change to make this trip even worse?”
As of Tuesday, New Jersey had the second most reported COVID-19 cases in the U.S. at 44,416 and more than 1,200 deaths. Pennsylvania has reported 14,559 cases and close to 200 deaths.
Even back in March, though, Creelman panicked he wouldn’t be able to find a place to park his truck to sleep, or that he’d be exposed to COVID-19 at the designated truck stops dotting the long highways.
He relied on supplies he already had in his truck — disinfectant wipes, portable toilet, fridge, microwave and toaster oven. He did not have any personal protective equipment like gloves or a mask. He arrived home a few weeks ago, and has been self-isolating ever since.
Creelman made the difficult decision not to take on anymore work unless it’s transporting essential supplies like food or personal protective equipment. Technically a senior, he faces a higher risk of experiencing severe symptoms of the disease than younger people.
He said he feels guilty “not being out there, not being part of keeping everybody fed,” but he is not willing to “risk everything” to deliver non-necessities like specialty flour, flooring and peat moss.
“It’s a real concern that the trucks are so important to keep the supply chain open,” Creelman said, “but absolutely no consideration has been given for support mechanisms.”
He advises that Canadian truck drivers switch trailers with their American counterparts at the border, and vice versa, to keep goods moving and keep truck drivers close to home in case they are exposed to COVID-19. If American drivers do cross into Canada, he thinks they should be tested.
Creelman’s union Teamsters Canada is demanding gas stations and highway rest areas re-open for transportation workers, saying that some of its members are going days without a shower and hours outside their normal routes to find an open washroom.
“This is a matter of human decency. Nobody can be expected to work an entire day without using a bathroom. It’s a disgraceful way to treat the truck drivers and delivery workers who are essential to the functioning of our country,” said national president François Laporte in a statement.
Tim Hortons announced last week it had opened 400 locations near major Canadian highways for truck drivers, providing them a place to rest and eat. Their washrooms are sanitized every 15 minutes.
Ontario said it would keep 23 “ONroute” highway stops open and add portable washrooms at 32 truck inspection stations. Premier Doug Ford pleaded with business owners to “have a heart” and keep washrooms open for truck drivers.
Late last week, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration decided to allow commercial food trucks to operate at rest stops along interstate highways, providing “vital sustenance” to truck drivers who “are critical to the nation’s continued ability to deliver needed food and relief supplies” to areas impacted by COVID-19, it said in a notice.
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