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Coronavirus: Florida truckers struggle to find meals in travel plazas

The highway warriors vow to keep chasing taillights on endless interstates to keep products on shelves.
Trucker Sheldon Lamar of Illinois and owner of SJL Express talks Tuesday in a Waffle House parking lot in Ellenton about how the pandemic has made it harder for drivers to eat on the road. The Waffle House is across the street from a Pilot Travel Center next to Interstate 75. Lamar hauled a load of meat to the Publix and was picking up another load of meat in Jacksonville to deliver in New Jersey. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

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While blizzards, thunderstorms and clogged traffic don’t often deter millions of professional truckers from finding hot food, the coronavirus pandemic is different. It has drivers scrambling to find basic essentials at fuel stations and truck stops along U.S. interstates.

Truck stops, large and small, closed their restaurants and driver lounges and taped off picnic tables and food bars. Hot dogs, taquitos and burritos no longer spin on metal rollers. Signs plastered on coffee stations ban truckers from using personal travel mugs. It’s that liquid gold that helps drivers pull all nighters in air-ride seats.

Drivers, whether local or long haul, no longer take hot food for granted.

“Your options are fairly small,” said Kevin Callahan, a Cocoa Beach resident. “Drivers are picking clear the small amount of food in truck stops.”

The closures have forced drivers to eat from boxes and cans in trucks instead of lounges. Some can cook in microwaves in sleeper cabs, while others can pack small refrigerators with food. Once the outbreak closed restaurants and emptied grocery stores, the heat-and-eat meals in boxes such as soup and Hot Pockets disappeared from truck stop shelves.

Greg Dockery, a 25-year owner operator of Dock 2 Dock Transport, drives all over Florida but goes home each night to Riverview. The pandemic has forced him to pack sandwiches and snacks every day because there is “no way” to get a rig into the establishments offering carryout food.

“Even that’s a hassle," he said. “I don’t want to eat up all of my survival food just in case they put us in a lock down quarantine in Florida.”

Drivers say they’ve grabbed extra gears and shifted into overdrive to deliver food and essential supplies for the millions of Americans quarantined at home.

An outdoor eating area at the Pilot Travel Center in Ellenton is closed to truckers because of the coronavirus outbreak. The tables were wrapped in plastic. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

To meet the growing demand for millions of consumers, the federal government relaxed rules when drivers haul “emergency restock.” Drivers delivering those items can complete the deliveries even if they hit traffic or other delays.

Sitting inside his 2016 Volvo in a Waffle House parking lot in Ellenton on Tuesday, Sheldon Lamar, 62, noted the irony in sleeping in the parking lot at a business that he would never consider parking his rig at if it was open.

As truck stops now limit services and goods, Lamar said he has encountered rest areas with no parking spots for semis. He said it’s also impossible to find disinfectant to spray or wipe down the inside of his cab, especially since his wife is a clean freak. But while delivering to Publix, he said he spotted “tons" of toilet paper stacked on pallets.

The 43-year driver said he and his wife have been busy hauling meat and food across the country over the past two weeks. He delivered a load of meat on Monday to a Publix distribution center in Lakeland. He then picked up a load of cookies to deliver in the Tampa Bay area.

The message on Lamar’s shirt signified National Truck Driver Appreciation Week 2019: “Appreciated for my work, respected for my work ethic.” Lamar acknowledged the difficulty in finding meals and food on the road but said “you got to adjust” like everybody else in the pandemic.

“When you need to eat healthy, Popeye’s, Subway and Taco Bell aren’t the places to eat,” said Lamar, laughing.

After resting Monday night, Lamar said he planned to pick up a load of meat in Jacksonville to deliver to New Jersey.

One problem for millions of truckers is the unpredictable schedules they keep. Some might not stop driving until 3 a.m. and could end up in an industrial area with limited options to eat.

Last week, a social media movement encouraged motorists to help truckers by ordering food at drive-thru restaurants because the eateries don’t allow people to walk through lines.

“It’s hit or miss,” said Callahan, who hauls refrigerated trailers for Prime Inc., and was delivering meat to a Costco distribution center in Utah. “This isn’t a 9 to 5 job. I might get food tonight or I might not."

The collective effort on social media to help drivers doesn’t impress all.

“Nobody cared about my well being before the virus, why would now be different?” Florida-based driver Brian Smith told the Times. “If anything, my life has been easier because traffic has been extremely light.”

The restaurant closures pose an even bigger problem for thousands of linehaul drivers who sleep in hotels each day. Many drivers frequent hotel restaurants or nearby establishments.

Nicholas Naperta, a Cleveland-based driver who shuttles loads between multiple states for Holland Freight, said he was glad to find the well-known Tony’s Restaurant selling carryout in Birch Run, Mich. on Tuesday. He had to walk a little distance, but it was worth it, he said, noting he’d be “munching away” in the hotel room.

“The restrictions have made it difficult for us to find a place to eat when we are at the hotels,” he said. “Crazy times. We can only just plug along.”

As lawmakers urge people to stay home, it’s impossible for drivers to not interact with others when working.

Pat Messick, a local driver who delivers office products in St. Petersburg, said he has noticed an increased fear among customers since Friday. His employer no longer requires signatures on handheld scanners. He’s now meeting customers at doors and not entering businesses or homes.

“It’s the scare factor that everyone is in a panic,” he said. “It’s almost got to the point where people don’t want to touch packages. It’s the invisible monster."

In normal conditions, companies allow drivers to use break rooms, cafeterias and restrooms when picking up and delivering freight. Not anymore. To stop the virus from spreading, many companies have banned drivers from entering facilities and have set up portable toilets near loading docks, drivers said.

Truckers work 365 days a year. The wheels never stop, even on holidays.

Musicians write songs about the men and women who buckle themselves into 80,000 pound rigs to keep America stocked. The bumper stickers say: “If you bought it, a truck brought it,” and “Without trucks, America stops.”

As always, the highway warriors vow to keep chasing taillights up and down endless interstates to keep staples on shelves. Americans depend on truckers — now more than ever as people hunt for basic necessities across the country.

“It’s a real struggle out here for us truckers, but I know we’re gonna handle it,” Dockery said. “We’re built that way to survive.”

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