March 24, 2020 by Andrew Graham, WyoFile
INTERSTATE 80 – On his weekly runs across the country, commercial truck driver Medi Agha is doing his best to remain in social isolation, he said.
When he reaches a truck stop, like the Petro Stopping Center on the western edge of Laramie – where he spoke with WyoFile Saturday – he tries to get in and out quickly, he said.
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During this stop, he showered. He ordered food to go from the on-site restaurant, which still serves only two meals following orders from Gov. Mark Gordon and the state health officer to curtail public gatherings. Then he went back to his truck booth.
As a reporter approached his truck, Agha shouted “six feet please,” with a smile.
“I don’t like it,” he said. But “it’s for other people not to get sick.”
Since COVID-19 seized the country, government officials have shrunk to expand the capacity of the hospital bed. Health systems are busy buying medical supplies such as test materials and personal protective equipment – some of which are already limited in many places. Confronting all these concerns requires a functional transport and logistics network.
Agha and his colleagues, along with rest stops and gas station workers, mechanics, tow drivers, highway patrolmen and snowmobile drivers holding trucks on the road, have suddenly moved to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness.
Gordon on Friday issued an executive order to loosen the restrictions on cargo weight and the number of hours a driver can work when providing urgent supplies for the COVID-19 response. The order followed and mirrored one that was issued at the federal level, Wyoming Department of Transportation Public Affairs Manager Doug McGee said.
Over the weekend, a winter storm and a subsequent pile closed a stretch of I-80 between Laramie and Cheyenne. Communicating with drivers through social media channels and mailing lists, Wyoming Highway Patrol and WDOT officials put together a convoy of 26 trucks carrying the kind of supplies deemed necessary for the COVID-19 response. The convoy was escorted by snow plows and patrol cars around the closure using Highway 210, which runs parallel to I-80 and was also closed to the public.
Medi Agha poses for a portrait in front of his truck on March 21. (Andrew Graham / WyoFile)
The list of supplies in Gordon’s order expanded beyond medical supplies to include water and food, heating oil, motor fuel and agricultural products, and supplies including livestock feed.
The pandemic has also raised concerns about everyday life. Panic dealers have cleared shelves in grocery stores with important items. There is a lack of toilet paper and non-perishable food in bulk as well as thermometers, hand cleaners and cleaning supplies needed to follow the official prevention guidelines.
Along the way, Agha has been searching for hand sanitizer and other disinfectants at every stop in the many states he travels through without success, he said. During this race, Agha was carrying medical supplies, he said, though he did not know what kind. To boost his own immune system, Agha gets plenty of sleep, eats healthy and tries to exercise, he said. He travels with dumbbells in his truck and trains with them every other day.
He has seen fewer cars on the roads, but plenty of trucks, he said. The traffic on the coasts of his routes is suddenly non-existent.
The 32-year-old New Yorker makes good money driving a truck, he said. Before the outbreak, he sometimes felt like he was missing out on life – not going to nightclubs and having fun – while on the lonely highway.
But the city today is shuttered. Instead, “I perform a service proudly,” Agha said.
He is not sure if COVID-19 is so much on the minds of his many colleagues around the country, he said: “I don’t think they are aware of it much because they just don’t have good information.”
On I-80, large electronic signs managed by the Wyoming Department of Transportation span the highway at regular intervals. Most often, they warn drivers about black ice, blowing snow or high winds. On Saturday, they directed people to a Wyoming Department of Health website with information on COVID-19.
WYDOT’s statewide electronic signs are used to highlight COVID-19 and direct all types of drivers to government information sites across the state, McGee said, unless immediate travel danger information takes precedence.
Isolated, but in danger
Driving with trucks – long days alone or with a partner behind the wheel – is isolated work. But the work puts drivers in the flow of human travel and commerce, bringing risks of exposure or transmission.
“We are in a way isolated, but on the other hand we stop at rest stops and travel stops with people from all over the world,” said Ron Morgan, another cross-country commissioner running the WyoFile interview on Saturday.
Morgan is unable to acquire a hand sanitizer and has improvised with something he calls “bleach balls” to keep his truck clean. The bleach ball is just a ballet piece of paper towel, soaked in bleach. Morgan wipes his doors and strikes down with such balls, washing his hands with soap and water when he gets back in his truck after every stop, he said.
Morgan did not pull COVID-19-related supplies, he said, but instead heavy, bagged materials traveling from New York state to Nevada. “They never tell me what they put on,” he said. His company was considering transporting COVID-19 supplies, but was discouraged when it heard about long waiting times at distribution centers to load trucks due to high demand.
Ron Morgan stands for a portrait in front of his truck on March 21. (Andrew Graham / WyoFile)
It’s not just the drivers who worry about the virus.
At the Petro stop, workers are cleaned more frequently, said employee John Shelden, who was wearing gloves while emptying trash cans outside. The showers used by trucks are on strict cleaning schedules, Shelden said, though he added that it was true even before COVID-19.
Despite the dangers and business closures all over Wyoming, he said, it’s important for truck stops to stay open.
“That’s the problem with that,” Shelden said. “We will try to quarantine, but our entire economy is based on these trucks. We can’t afford not to drive. “
On Saturday afternoon, a couple of customers lounged on chairs inside the Petro stop center, while truck drivers moved between a semi-factory parking lot and the building with shower bags on their arms. Most seemed to take precautions, Shelden said.
“Every truck I’ve seen has opened the door with a paper towel,” he said.
But not everyone was worried.
“I don’t buy it,” Utah resident and commercial driver Brice Green said of the pandemic: “I think it’s far congested.”
Green, who carries out regional shipping throughout “west of Mississippi,” had a truck with chilled food, he said. He has been a commercial truck driver for 38 years, he said, and looks a bit new on the road since the arrival of COVID-19.
“It’s the same old grind,” he said. “I wash my hands. I washed them before. ”
While the truck stop in Laramie was crowded with trucks, the Akal Travel Center was about 20 miles west of town slow. Akal is the last stop for drivers before climbing toward Elk Mountain – one of the I-80s most treacherous winter treks.
Located on a windswept and empty stretch of Wyoming Plain, the stop houses a restaurant serving authentic Indian food – a discrepancy that has attracted national attention. The restaurant, which drew truck drivers and other travelers in the know, is also closed under Gordon’s order. To-go orders of samosas and fare like chicken wings and burritos are still available.
Business was slow on a Saturday, said proprietor Gurjot Singh. “It’s OK,” he said. Often the trucks fill much on the east side and wrap around the building to the south. Singh tries to wear gloves and use plenty of hand sanitizer when interacting with customers, he said, though the shelves of his shop are also empty for such items.
By Saturday night, Singh was down in his last pair of gloves, he said. Holes were visible at your fingertips. He had placed orders on gloves and other security supplies.
“Maybe tomorrow I’ll get more,” he said.
This article was originally published by WyoFile and republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and politics.