With the statewide temporary closure by Governor Jay Inslee of some stores, restaurants, bars, and recreational facilities, coupled with the telecommuting by employees of major corporate employers due to the Coronavirus, truckers are among the businesses still operating as usual to resupply stores. However, industry advocates say that despite the sharp decrease in traffic on the interstates and highways, relaxed government regulations and an increased demand in emptying store shelves – all of which under other circumstances would provide some favorable conditions for the sector – freight volume is still down.
“It makes everything a day-by-day situation,” Washington Trucking Association President Sheri Call said. “It’s absolutely kind of driving the point of how important freight is.”
Yet, Call said in some areas they’ve experienced a large increase in grocery demand, driven in part by a surge in toilet paper purchases despite urges by the state Department of Health against hoarding.
Helping to make freight deliveries faster is the mass telecommuting being done by employees of Washington companies such as Boeing, Amazon and Microsoft – a move that has all but eliminated congestion in the central Puget Sound region. Although actual traffic data isn’t yet available, a recent Washington State Department of Transportation blog post noted “it’s pretty clear the demand on the highway system is lighter.”
“If conditions could be like this every day, our members would be pretty happy,” Call said.
In the past week the federal government has also eased regulation on trucking. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) for the first time issued a suspension on hours of service for drivers making certain deliveries such as medical supplies and personnel. Call says her organization is working with Inslee’s office to get that waiver broadened to include consumer goods and fuel.
Although exemptions to truck weight restrictions could also be implemented, it’s not currently under consideration in Washington, she said. At a local level, they hope to obtain waivers on noise and parking restrictions so deliveries can be made as soon as drivers arrive, “instead of having to operate inside an ordinance window.”
Despite the temporary deregulations, Call said that the trucking industry is still struggling in part due to a driver shortage that is now exacerbated by the closure of truck driving schools. “There’s serious concern that even a short closure will put those folks out of business.”
She added that while grocery deliveries may be up, other freight has virtually stopped due to school and business closures. “I have members who are saying…business is way down, at least to the proportion of pre-recession levels.”
Small businesses in 32 of Washington’s counties can now apply for low-interest loans to offset the economic impacts of the virus.