The world in going through unprecedented change with coronavirus*, but unless you've been living off-grid in a commune, you know about the new coronavirus, or COVID-19, that originated in the Wuhan province of China and has been making its way to every country in the world.
In the U.S., cases are now confirmed in every state causing a nationwide panic. Businesses have employed disaster protocols, neighborhoods have been self-quarantined, and toilet paper is sold out nearly everywhere. People are even joking they won’t drink Corona beer because they are afraid of contracting the virus.
While contamination is the first concern to come to mind for many, the virus—and the fears it creates—has larger effects on the trucking industry. So what does this mean for us?
In short, we can expect a volatile year.
Regulatory and Shipping Changes
So far, local and federal government reaction to the virus has been widespread, including international travel restrictions, financial relief for suffering businesses, school closings, and a mad race to develop a vaccine or treatment.
On March 13, the FMCSA announced it had suspended hours of service regulations for those hauling goods or people to help with the outbreak, including medical supplies and personnel, food for emergency restocking of stores, and equipment for temporary housing and quarantine facilities - all as part of President Trump’s national emergency declaration. Then on the 18th they expanded the parameters for emergency services even further.
This will help urgently needed supplies get to their final destination quickly, but whenever HOS regulations are partially lifted—as in this case—the concern is that drivers might be tempted to drive while fatigued.
Many drivers have already noticed changes while delivering, most customers are employing protocols such as not allowing drivers on the docks to protect both drivers and their warehouse staff. While this seems like a smart idea, the unfortunate fallout from this is drivers being stuck on customer lots with no restroom or driver facilities available.
Truck Stop and Restaurant Changes
The necessary increase in social distancing and the request that individuals maintain at least a 6 foot distance from others has led to many restaurants either closing their doors or moving to drive-up or carry-out only service. Both of these options make finding food on the road a harder task for American truck driver whose truck cannot fit in most drive-thrus or parking lots. We have one driver who was recently refused service because he was a walk-up customer at a drive-thru.
While many of their fellow citizens are working from home to avoid unnecessary exposure to the virus, truckers simply do not have that option. Hygiene and seclusion on the road have become more important than ever.
Contradicting what might be expected with the shutdown of Chinese factories (which comprise roughly 22% of the overall trucking market) shipping volumes have gone up significantly over the last few weeks due to public panic and stockpiling of certain items—particularly hand sanitizer, toilet paper, bottled water, and canned goods—in case they need to self-quarantine in their homes.
As stores are running out of inventory they need to restock products from warehouses and distribution centers across the country. Refrigerated carriers, specifically, like us at K & J Trucking, are seeing a dramatic increase in fresh meats in addition to the hand sanitizer and dry goods demand affecting the industry as a whole. However, product supply and demand is shifting by the minute as the crisis unfolds and it is anyone’s guess what will happen next.
1st and 2nd quarter volumes very greatly by year but this year the high level of activity is unprecedented. Will it be sustainable throughout the outbreak? Given the rate at which products are disappearing, at some point soon we can assume retail and warehouse shelves will be bare awaiting replenishment. If the products in question come from overseas factories that had been or are currently shut down, we could see a very real supply issue for months as suppliers struggle to catch up and meet demand. And if that happens a lot of trucks could be empty during the transition period.
Another big concern is if the supply chain issues will, in fact, be significant enough to meaningfully influence consumers. If manufacturing activity were seriously curtailed, it would then affect jobs, which would trickle down to consumer spending and confidence, ultimately disrupting all other areas of economic spending, and ultimately, the trucking industry.
So what can we do? Given all the uncertainty, truckers and trucking companies can do little more than closely monitor the situation, brace for the worst, and hope for the best. And it couldn’t hurt to enjoy a Corona while we wait to see how it all plays out.
*Note to Readers:
This is a rapidly developing situation and information in this blog can quickly become out of date. Please contact the World Health Organization or the CDC for the latest news on the COVID-19 Pandemic.
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