Mike Augustino hauled his heavy load of pipe 861 kilometres from Camrose, Alta., and it took him less than nine hours.
That’s usually a 10- or 11-hour trip to Prince George but traffic was almost non-existent. From the park gates at Jasper he had only one vehicle to pass before he rolled into town Friday evening. The self-isolated world of COVID-19 is keeping people close to home and off the highways and city freeways, about the only positive Augustino can draw from the pandemic as it heads into its fourth week.
Parked behind the Prince George Husky/Esso Travel Centre off Highway 97 along with five or six other drivers Augustino knows, they were all hauling similar loads of pipe that’s being stockpiled for the LNG Canada Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline from Dawson Creek to Kitimat. He’s been making trips to various points along the line for Chohan Freight Forwarders of Burnaby for nearly three months. Augustino couldn’t deliver his load until Monday and had two days in the city to kill.
If it had been a normal weekend, he and his trucker friends might have gotten a cab to head downtown to a restaurant or pub, but with social distancing and crowd restriction orders in place, most businesses are closed and there wasn’t much for him to do. After driving for hours by himself on the road, he misses being able to socialize.
“Normally a truck driver will talk to another truck driver but now we’re all isolating in our trucks,” Augustino said. “It sucks. It’s a little bit more lonely.
“You hear the devastation (COVID-19 is) causing on CBC radio and how it’s affecting the businesses. We’re kind of lucky in a way that we get to stay as busy as we are,” he said.
“I’ve been driving truck for 20 years and for the most part it was an unappreciated thing; we were just a hindrance on the road. Now it’s on Facebook, it’s on the news how important we are.”
There are times he hates having to tarp down a load alone on a windy day and he’s had way too many days of brutal winter driving conditions, but he takes the good with the bad. Trucking is not just a job to the 45-year-old Augustino, it’s a lifestyle.
“It provides me with a comfortable living and I can’t complain,” he said. “The driving part of it now is just no stress, there’s no hassles, it’s just us trucks out here, which is nice in a way.”
Augustino was up early Sunday warming up his truck on a crisp -14 C morning and he planned to head to Wal-Mart to pick up a microwave oven for his truck. He’s finding it hard to get hot meal on the road sometimes because the COVID-19 crisis has forced even the fast-food restaurants to close. He can’t drive his truck through the drive-through lanes and most of the take-out windows refuse to serve walk-up customers.
The Prince George Husky/Esso Travel Centre is open 24 hours a day and it’s an oasis for truck drivers looking for a free hot shower and coffee, a friendly face and a homecooked meal. The five-acre parking lot gives truckers a place to park their rigs overnight so they can get a good night’s sleep and be fresh for the road the next morning. COVID has closed the restaurant but the takeout meals are flying off the shelves.
“So far we’ve been pretty lucky and we’ve been able to still provide showers and washrooms and we have our take-out coolers,” said Sheryl Malgunas, who co-owns the truck stop with her husband Stew.
“Now that we’re takeout only, my staff have the time to make lots of homemade dinners like meatloafs and lasagna to put in the cooler, so when the restaurant is closed after hours they’re able to get meals,” she said.
“With the dining room closed we have to be a bit more creative by extending our menu into our convenience store coolers to offer a few more dinners they can just microwave in their truck. What we see at our site is nothing but appreciation, they are very grateful.”
That feeling is mutual. Truckers make it possible for stores to stock their shelves and they’re doing their part to keep the stressed economy moving. Malgunas says they need all the support they can get.
“Our customers are primarily our commercial drivers,” said Malgunas. “For a lot of them we’re an overnight stop on their way to Alaska. They’re bringing food and medical supplies and we don’t want these guys getting sick.
“For us, these are our people before (COVID-19) and they’ll continue to be our people after and we want to continue to provide that good service through all of this for them.”
Quesnel driver Carl Robinson arrived Saturday night with a heavy-duty lawnmower strapped to his flat-deck trailer that he picked up in Georgia. It took him the better part of a week to get to Prince George.
“It’s nice and warm down there and I found out my air conditioning isn’t working,” said Robinson. “Everything there is just like here, it’s all shut down. Restaurants are takeout only, if you’re lucky. I’ve got my places that I stop at planned ahead. I’ve been doing this for about 40 years.”
Georgia was one of the last states to impose stay-at-home orders and did that on Wednesday, well after Robinson left with his load.
“When I picked it up there they had no restrictions on but the beaches were closed,” he said. “The roads are a lot quieter. I get into the big cities and just blow right through, there’s no traffic jams. I like it.”
He still had a day’s drive ahead of him Sunday morning to reach his destination in Kitimat and had a takeout order of bacon and eggs to eat in his truck before he left.
With customers constantly coming and going, Husky has provided Plexiglas screens for customer service clerks at the till and longer cords for the payment processor machines and has given out face shields for truck stop staff to wear. The company updates the merchants daily to keep them informed about any changes in health protocols. All the staff have been briefed on how to disinfect surfaces. Showers and washrooms are kept well-scrubbed, fuel pump handles are wiped down often and keypads are cleaned in between customers.
Malgunas laid off five waitresses because most of their income is based on tips they no longer get for serving meals and they are better off receiving employment insurance. One of the cooks asked for the layoff to be with her husband, who has health concerns that could leave him more vulnerable to the virus.
Malgunas’s daughter Jayden is an X-ray/CT scan technician at UHNBC and her brother and sister-in-law are respiratory therapists in the city, so she’s well-aware why COVID-19 protocols have to be strictly followed.
“(Jayden is) reminding us daily how important it is to self-isolate and we get daily reminders of the importance of this so it’s easy for us to keep reminding our staff,” said Sheryl. “Sometimes if you don’t know anyone you get lax, and you can’t.
“It keeps us worried about her. Our hospitals in the north are already full and if it gets bad it’s going to be crippling up here.”