Tensions 'quite high' as Alberta truckers move supplies during COVID-19 outbreak

As many Canadians hunker down at home, truckers are on the roads, keeping supplies flowing. They're facing increased health checks and reduced access to rest stops.

Drivers face increased health checks, rest stop closures

Trucking lines have been kept open despite a border closure to non-essential travel. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

As many Canadians hunker down at home, truckers are on the roads, keeping supplies flowing.

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus has led to business closures, flight cancellations and states of emergency declared in many areas. As well, the U.S.-Canada border is closing to all non-essential travel.

Truckers, however, will continue to stay on the highways, crossing that border, to ensure key goods are getting onto store shelves.

Chris Standing, co-owner of L.A. Trucking in Calgary, says his crews have switched from transporting pipe and dry goods to mostly groceries, water and pop.

"It starts to blow up early last week and it's just increased every day since then," Standing said.

"Tensions are quite high in most places that you go to, because everybody's behind, backlogged, trying to restock their shelves and distribution centres."

Sanitizer thefts lead to rest stop closures

Services for Alberta truckers have been reduced, however.

Several highway rest stops have been temporarily closed "due to vandalism and theft of toilet paper and hand sanitizer at facilities across the province," Alberta Ministry of Transportation spokesperson Brooklyn Elhard said in a statement Thursday.

"Repairs are underway and Alberta Transportation is working to reopen them as quickly as possible, Elhard said, adding they'll be restocked with supplies where available. She said drivers should bring along their own toilet paper and soap, just in case.

The department did not say which stops were affected.

Truckers are being encouraged to keep wipes, sanitizer and gloves in their trucks. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Chris Nash, president of the Alberta Motor Transport Association, said his group was working to prevent such closures but noted there had been rest stops closed for coronavirus-prevention in Canada and the United States.

Nash said that, overall, the efforts by various governments to keep trucking lines open are working right now. He said the supply chain is moving well, and steps are being taken to keep truckers, and the public, safe from infection.

All truckers should have gloves, wipes and sanitizer in their vehicles, he said.

Driver Tony Jackson said he's been able to cut back on human interaction almost entirely, by staying away from forklift operators as they unload his flatbed at a distance. Inside his truck, he disinfects throughout the day. With a teenage daughter, he doesn't want to bring any illness home.

So far, the rest stops he's been to have been open but he's worried about hearing some may, or have been, closed.

"What are we supposed to do, run off into the bushes? And not all of us drivers out here are guys, guys where the world is our bathroom sort of thing," Jackson said.

Industry advocates previously lobbied for truckers to be exempt from the mandatory 14-day self-isolation period applied to anyone crossing into Canada from the United States, an exemption that has been granted.

That will keep drivers on the road, delivering goods, Nash says, instead of spending 14 days at home in between trips.

Drivers are being offered personal protective gear, and he said they're maintaining a safe distance from other people.

"For the most part, drivers are in a bubble, so to speak, so they are self-isolating for many miles on the road," Nash said.

"But when they stop to fuel or get food — where they can get food — just making sure they're using all precautions necessary, and they have the tools to do so."

Border screening

All truck drivers are being screened when they cross into this country, a Canadian Border Services Agency spokesperson said in a statement sent Thursday. Officials are asking everyone, the spokesperson said, if they have a cough, difficulty breathing or a fever.

The agency was unable to say how many Canadian truckers travel between the two countries regularly.

Anyone crossing the border with symptoms will be provided a kit that includes a mask and will be separated from other people immediately, border officials said.

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The additional health and safety measures at drop-off locations have become obvious and widespread, said Standing, whose fleet typically travels between Calgary and Edmonton.

Staff receiving the goods are maintaining a distance from the drivers, he said, and truckers are asked at each stop if they're experience any symptoms.

"It is definitely crazy times," Standing said. "I've never seen or been part of anything like this."

With files from Dave Gilson