WAPAKONETA — As critically needed supplies wind their way across the United States during what many experts believe could be the height of the novel coronavirus, the common denominator in that supply chain is the nation’s truck drivers.
Their cargo may be varied — from medical items bound for hospitals to food headed for the local grocer — but truckers are being hailed by many as front-line heroes in the fight against COVID-19.
Tony Mason is an over-the-road trucker whose home is near Nashville, Tennessee. He was parked Tuesday in the lot at the Travel Center of America in Wapakoneta. Originally on his way to Columbus with a truckload of plumbing supplies, Mason found himself in Wapak after his planned delivery fell through for reasons unrelated to the virus. He was waiting for a co-worker who would deliver the load while Mason swapped trucks and headed off for Charlotte, North Carolina.
For the most part, the veteran trucker is finding little has changed on the road.
“I have a refrigerator and a microwave in my truck, so I’m not having trouble finding places to eat. Most of the truck stops are open for carry-out meals and you can still get a shower at most truck stops,” Mason said.
“I’ve heard that a few locations are closed, but I’ve not run into that. I will say that a lot of Walmart locations are not letting us (truckers) park there right now, even if it’s to shop,” Mason said. “It’s kind of hit-and-miss.”
That’s one reason that Josh Sargent, general manager of the family-owned TA Travel Center in Wapak, is trying to inject a little normalcy into the lives of truckers who frequent his business — the site of the first interstate truck stop in the United States.
“It’s rough for truckers our there right now,” said Sargent. “We’re hearing that some of the smaller mom-and-pop truck stops are closing and that a good meal can be hard to find sometimes. That’s why we offer breakfast sandwiches every day starting at 6 a.m. and a full lunch selection — steak, pork chops, fried chicken, lasagna, cold meats and more — from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.”
Beginning Tuesday, all staff members at the Wapak truck stop were sporting face masks that were donated by donated by a woman from Jackson Center. Sargent appreciated the gesture. “We’ve got people from all over the country stopping in here every day and our top priority is the safety of our customers and staff,” he said.
Sargent said it’s a stressful time for truckers and for those who serve them alike. “We had to lay off our waitresses, which I didn’t want to do, because we have no restaurant seating right now. And it’s rough for truckers, too. With the auto plants shut down, 50% of the freight suddenly stopped.
“But drivers are their same old selves, for the most part,” Sargent noted. “It’s their livelihood; they’ve gotta do what they’ve gotta do. We just want to make things as normal as possible for them. We talked about putting up tape for social distancing, but we decided against it. We wanted to see of people would just do distancing by themselves, and for the most part they are.”
While business at the truck stop is down by upwards of 15% from normal, Sargent said the establishment has a “great reputation with truckers” that has helped ease the financial pain.
“When this is all done we’re going to have a week-long party for truckers,” Sargent said. “Truckers are kind of heroes right now, and I told my staff that we’re kind of like their sidekicks.”
Just north of Wapakoneta at the I-75 rest area, Scott (who preferred not to give his last name) pulled his United Parcel Service tractor-trailer rig into the lot. He was on the final leg of his daily round trip between Toledo and Walton, Kentucky.
He said traffic on the interstate is lighter than usual “but other than that not much has changed for us drivers.”
One difference, he said, is the newfound respect for members of his profession.
“I was here (at the rest stop) earlier this week and kids had written in chalk in the parking lot ‘Thank you truck drivers’ and ‘You’re heroes.’ That was pretty cool.”