Riding it out: Meet the truckers who keep stuff moving through COVID-19

They're essential workers on big rigs, behind the wheels of a largely unseen part of the economy, moving goods amid a pandemic so powerful that it seems to have brought the rest of daily life to a standstill.

From high seats, truckers have a perspective into the pandemic that few others can share

From left: truckers Keisha Clement; Dennis Roach, with eldest daughter Peyton; and Donny Tizzard shared their stories with CBC News. (Submitted)

They're essential workers on big rigs, behind the wheels of a largely unseen part of the economy, moving goods amid a pandemic so powerful that it seems to have brought the rest of daily life to a standstill.

From their high seats, they also have a perspective into the pandemic than few others can share. 

"There's no traffic — you're meeting more tractor trailers than cars," said trucker Dennis Roach, whose regular route sees him hauling carbon dioxide between St. John's and Saint John. 

"The gas stations are empty, the hotel parking lots are empty, the Tim Hortons parking lots are empty.… It's almost like an ominous feeling. Everybody is home trying to protect themselves and we're out here trying to protect ourselves." 

Roach is one of four truckers who spoke with CBC News about how their line of transportation work has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Roach picks up a load of CO2 in New Brunswick. (Submitted by Dennis Roach)

COVID stigma

Roach's cargo provides the fizz in carbonated drinks and beer, but he doesn't pick up many celebratory vibes while he's on the road. 

"You do realize there's something serious on the go," he said, "and you hope that you don't get it yourself."

Truckers have been declared essential workers, which means they can keep moving without the need to quarantine after a trip. 

Trucker Donny Tizzard, whose work takes him across Newfoundland and back, said a COVID stigma hangs over the trucking trade, even though considerable precautions are made at every stage to ensure safety. 

"We're being made to feel horrible," he said during an interview from central Newfoundland, "because everyone thinks since you are a trucker and have been everywhere that you have it." 

Clements of Maddox Cove started working full time as a truck driver in April 2019. She says she's honoured to be deemed essential because she can do her part to help. (Submitted by Keisha Clements)

Based in Conception Bay South, Tizzard carries building materials and retail goods, as well as wine and spirits to out-of-town liquor stores. 

Tizzard said while life on the road has improved slightly since public health orders were first announced, there are still sometimes issues, like finding a shower, a hot meal or a clean bathroom. 

For Tizzard, a greater challenge has been people's attitudes. He recalled an incident when he made a stop to pick up a pallet, and a man — with his hand up — ordered him to get back in his truck. 

Mostly all you see on the road now is trucks.- Keisha Clements

"When someone does that it's not very welcoming," he said. "It doesn't make you feel very good."

Tizzard said fear of contracting the virus has led to a change in behaviours. 

"A majority of the customers won't sign your paperwork. Even if you lay down your receipt book for them to sign it, they won't touch it," Tizzard said. 

"I've driven away without a few signatures. What I do now is get the customer's name upon arrival and if they refuse the paperwork I write down in my receipt book 'will not sign' next to their name and hope for the best."

Inside Power's rig, Lysol wipes have replaced Armor All wipes. (Submitted by Tony Power)

A cab full of sanitizers

Maddox Cove resident Keisha Clements, 23, marked her first year behind the wheel this month.

Qualified to drive all kinds of heavy equipment, Clements says she did not imagine that her driving career would involve working under the strained circumstances of a pandemic. 

"It's scary," she said, adding that nothing about her job is the same after a year. That includes what she brings with her. 

"Lots of sanitizers. Extra bottles in the truck. Lysol spray and wipes," Clements said. 

Doing "turn-and-burn" trips from St. John's to Long Harbour, Clements said she can see the pandemic from her seat. 

"Mostly all you see on the road now is trucks," she said.

Depending on the job, Clements might spend time in lineups like this one at Oceanex. (Submitted by Keisha Clements)

Finding a place to pull over — and a public washroom — became difficult when the pandemic forced many businesses to close. Clements said that poses an extra challenge for her. 

"Some places won't let you use the washrooms, which really sucks because I can't jump out and go on the side of the road like the rest of the boys, shall we say," she said. However, she's been glad to see more coffee shops and gas stations opening up along the highway. "So that's a good thing." 

Not so good? The cleanliness of public washrooms she encounters on the road.

I'm nervous about going to the U.S. and getting sick.- Tony Power

"Sometimes you go in and they're not clean, and you wonder how many other drivers, how many possible cases of coronavirus [were] in there before I walked in there," said Clements

She said all she can do is protect herself and power on through. 

"We know what we're up against," she said, 

"But I always have that fear in the back of my head.  Am I going to be the one who gets sick?"

Roach and his eldest daughter, Peyton: 'I don't want to bring anything home to my family.' (Submitted by Dennis Roach)

Dead quiet in Manhattan 

With three decades in the trucking business, Holyrood-based driver Tony Power has seen a lot on the road. The "new normal," though, is something else. 

Case in point: what he saw — or rather, what he didn't see — during a recent trip through New York City. 

On a Wednesday morning a few weeks ago, it took Power minutes, rather than hours, to get from the Bronx, across Manhattan and onto Interstate 95 in New Jersey. 

"Normally at that hour of the morning, you're looking at a 2½-hour trip in the traffic, but it took me 18 minutes," he said. 

"There's no traffic. I can make good time but when you think why there is no traffic, it's scary.… [COVID-19 is] rampant down there." 

In this rig, trucker Tizzard has been busy with cross-island deliveries of liquor, retail items, and building materials. (Submitted by Donny Tizzard)

Power's work has taken him across Canada and the U.S. While speaking with CBC, he was on a route that took from Goobies to Grand Bank and on to Port aux Basques, to deliver 40,000 pounds — or about 18 tonnes — of clams. 

While he's been keeping up with shipments, he notes the freight moving business is down about a third. That means he will likely have to go off island to find work to maintain an income. 

"I'm nervous about going to the U.S. and getting sick," he said. "Every province that I go to, every state I go to, it adds to the nervousness." 

Power would like Marine Atlantic — which has already introduced measures to lower the risk of virus transmission — to go further, particularly by limiting the service only to truck trailers. He said trailers could be dropped off at one terminal and then picked by another truck on the other side.

"There's no need for anyone else to be aboard that boat, except for that crew," Power said.

After dropping off his clams in Port aux Basques, Power was set to pick up a load of produce to take back to St. John's. While he expects the pandemic to get worse, he said even if it ended now, it will take months for businesses to recover financially. 

Power, standing next to his rig in Holyrood, has been trucking for 30 years. He hopes the decline in business doesn't force him to find work in the U.S. (Submitted by Tony Power)

"You have restaurants in the downtown core that never really recovered from that big snowstorm we had," added Power. 

For now, all he can do is ride out the economic storm from the pandemic. That has meant detailed attention to his own hygiene and protection. 

"I just pulled over and visited a gas station washroom and I washed my hands, I'm disinfecting my hands, my jacket, my zipper, my belt buckle, everything. Where do I stop?" he said. 

Power stops less frequently for purchases now when he's driving. 

"Nothing against anyone in the service industry but man, it's going to take a long while to get over this phobia, to go in and actually purchase something." 

Safest at home 

Dennis Roach has a similar feeling. In an interview, he said only feels safe in his truck and his home. He said he is most anxious while crossing the gulf. 

"The most dangerous thing I do is get on the ferry," he said, although he notes that as soon as you board a Marine Atlantic ferry, his nose catches the smell of the cleaners the crew uses. 

"You can't leave. Once you're in your room you're not allowed out," he said. "But it does make me nervous because some areas of the boat are small. You're only six, 10 feet away from a person.… I just go to my room, shut my door and stay there." 

It's unbelievable, the generosity of people.... There's good people in the world.- Dennis Roach

He said when he stops on the road, he washes and sanitizes his hands. He wears a mask every time he leaves his vehicle to get food and gas, or go to the bathroom.

When he returns home, he behaves as if he were under quarantine even though he's exempt from the 14-day isolation order.

"When I get home I go to the shed and change and put all my used and unused clothes in a bag and my wife throws it all in the washer," Roach said.

"I don't leave the house to shop or anything. I walk the dog, that's it. I have to take precautions to make sure I don't get sick or bring something home to my wife and the three children."

Roach says acts of kindness like this pop-up barbecue at the Bishop's Falls Irving are now all along his route. The events are organized by local residents. (Submitted by Dennis Roach)

Kindness on the highway 

Roach said what lifts his spirits on this trip are people wanting to provide free food to truck drivers.

"It's unbelievable, the generosity of people," he said 

On this trip home, he said there was free food at Eddy's Restaurant in South Brook, the Irving Big Stops, the Salvation Army emergency response vehicle in Port aux Basques and a barbecue at the Bishop's Falls Irving organized by local residents. 

If it wasn't for us risking our lives during this pandemic, nobody would have anything they have today.- Donny Tizzard

The food is appreciated because meals are not as easy to get because of the pandemic; nothing is available on the ferry, seating isn't allowed in restaurants, and roadside restaurant hours have changed.

"You don't know what's opened or closed," he said. 

But that's no longer a concern.

"All this stuff is mind-boggling and heartwarming too. There's good people in the world."

Free food at a truck stop in Nova Scotia. Roach says the generosity is 'unbelievable.' (Submitted by Dennis Roach)

'Don't be scared' 

Driving a truck is not the easiest job at the best of times. 

In a pandemic, the risks are more obvious. 

For Keisha Clements, recognition as an essential worker is nice, but she said people working in the industry could use some financial recognition, too. 

"It would be nice to get danger pay," she said.

Clements said on payday, company owners Peggy and Larry Murphy gave their drivers a bonus for continuing to work during the pandemic. 

Tizzard says there's no need to be fearful of truckers who are working through the pandemic. (Submitted by Donny Tizzard)

"That makes us as drivers feel very appreciated," she said.

Despite working under these circumstances, she considers it an honour being deemed essential and playing a role in getting food to people and supplies to companies.

"It actually makes me proud knowing that I can help," Clements said.

Donny Tizzard hopes the public will recognize the role truckers are playing in keeping supermarkets stocked and bringing goods that are key to essential businesses. 

"If it wasn't for us risking our lives during this pandemic, nobody would have anything they have today," he said. 

"Don't be scared and don't be rude. We are all in the same boat."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Cec Haire


Cec Haire reports for CBC News from St. John's.

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