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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / A tractor-trailer moves with traffic along I-75 North in Cleveland, Tenn.

The truckers who haul toilet paper, hand sanitizer and ground beef to retail shelves across the country have their work cut out for them as stores try to rebound from the panic buying that has characterized the coronavirus crisis.

"Freight volumes across the U.S. are up 28% in the last month," said Craig Fuller, CEO of logistics data company FreightWaves. "Some sectors like relief supplies, medical supplies, ventilators, masks, cleaning supplies, consumer packaged goods and groceries are way up."

Particularly as restaurants shut down, schools close and offices send people home to work, that means truckers are playing an essential role in supplying the essentials for folks holed up at home.

"We're just the people that get people's stuff there, and we're just trying to get that done," said Andy Vanzant, senior vice president of operations for Covenant Transport. "We're behind the scenes. You go to the store and expect it to be there; you don't care how it got there."

But getting it there is a little more complicated in this new world. The closures of rest areas and restaurants are throwing kinks in the plans of the people who haul freight, said Max Farrell, the CEO of WorkHound, a real-time feedback platform for decentralized workforces like truckers.

"We're seeing truckers looking for advice on where to eat and where to park on the road," Farrell said. "With so many places closing, an 18-wheeler can't drive through a McDonald's and you can't call a delivery to a truck at a rest stop."

Charles Stallings has been driving big rigs for 25 years, and runs a regular route carrying produce and other groceries from Iowa to California for a small trucking company. Stallings packed in extra supplies for his most recent run, knowing it might be tricky to find places to stop, he said.

"I knew everything might be closed," he said. "I'm prepared in case I can't stop. I'm just trying to limit as much contact as I can right now to be on the safe side."

Farrell said constant communication with drivers is the best way companies can ease the uncertainty everyone is grappling with now.

"For companies, we're encouraging them to regularly share what's their position during the pandemic," Farrell said. "Here's what staff is doing, here's the plan if someone get sick, here's what happening with our customers. Over-communicating right now is really key."

Covenant is communicating multiple times a day with drivers about how to stay safe and keep surfaces clean, Vanzant said. So far, there hasn't been much concern from drivers about being out and working, but the company is also clear about what to do if a driver falls ill.

"If a driver were to call in and have concerns about they may have the virus, we would shut the truck down, issue them the authority to go to the nearest testing location," Vanzant said. "But so far so good — we have zero cases among our 6,000 employees."

The federal government has recently relaxed hourly rest requirements to make is easier to meet heightened demand for supplies, but Covenant is using that new flexibility sparingly, Vanzant said.

"We're trying to hold to the old rules," he said. "If we need to we'll go a few minutes over, but not more."

For Stallings, being out on the road doing his job helps preserve a sense of normalcy — and the traffic is a lot lighter, which helps when demand is high.

"We got a job we want to do, and I might as well do it," he said. "There's a reason why you can go to your store to get what you need. We're not out here to hold you up, we're out here to make sure America runs as normal as possible."

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.

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