How the pandemic is making it harder for truckers to make pit stops

Truckers spend long hours on the road keeping the supply chain up and running. They need to stay rested and fed — but COVID-19 is making that tougher in northern Ontario
By Nick Dunne - Published on Jul 01, 2020
Gilli’s Truck Stop is located on Highway 11 between North Bay and Timmins. (Nick Dunne)

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NEW LISKEARD — Sonia Lavigne knows her truckers. The owner of Gilli’s Truck Stop, located on Highway 11 between North Bay and Timmins, in New Liskeard, serves regulars who make the stop between hauls to grab a bite to eat, use the washroom, and maybe get some shuteye. “I know what they're doing, where they go, what they're like,” she says. “I know their life.”

Since COVID-19 shut down restaurants, though, Lavigne has been left with takeout only — and the business has taken a major hit. She had to temporarily lay off 26 employees, she says. On an average Sunday, she used to clear around $10,000 in revenue. Now, she’s lucky to get $2,000. Throughout March and April, she was averaging $600 per day. “Usually, it's four grand, six grand every day,” she says. “The numbers are not there. And I'm not a person that raises my prices.”

But she stays open for the truckers. “It's the truckers saying, ‘Thank you — thank you for being open.’ It keeps me going, because I'm doing something good,” she says. “People don’t realize what truck drivers’ lives are like. They’re stuck in their cab, no washroom. They’re reheating leftovers.”

Transport trucks are the link between manufacturing and retail, suppliers and businesses. With COVID-19 affecting workplaces and driving up demand for goods and food, maintaining a smooth supply chain is essential. But the pandemic has brought new stresses: Trucking involves long hours on the road and means remaining alert through 12-hour shifts. It’s important to stay rested, fed, hydrated, and caffeinated. But that’s becoming more of a challenge as roadside stops struggle. There are fewer and fewer places in northern Ontario for drivers to rest — and COVID-19 has made independent roadside stops harder to operate.

Carl Gill, a trucker who’s stopped at Gilli’s for lunch, says, “It’s good what they’ve got going on,” adding, “There’s nothing open from Matheson through Cochrane” — a town about 220 kilometres north. What Highway 11 doesn’t lack are abandoned motels, family restaurants, and other eateries that once served truckers, travellers, and families on road trips.

driver walking back to truck
Carl Gill leaving Gilli’s Truck Stop. (Nick Dunne)

Marco Beghetto, vice-president of communications at the Ontario Trucking Association, says that conditions for truckers have improved since reports of drivers being denied access to washrooms made national headlines and earned the condemnation of Premier Doug Ford. Beghetto says that businesses have since treated drivers better and notes that the washroom facilities in ONRoute stops along the 401 corridor were reopened. “The minister [of transportation’s] office has really done an amazing job during the crisis. But, as far as independents go, I think the various communities have really stepped up,” he says. “If they help truck drivers provide a safe place to eat, rest, and clean themselves up, then that is also part of the supply chain, because it allows drivers to do their jobs. Without them, the supply chain breaks down at the smallest level.”

While the truckers are still coming, Lavigne says she’s lost the bulk of her other regulars: people in town. “People are not working, not spending money. Where they spend their money — it's McDonald's, Tim Hortons, and Walmart,” she says, adding that she can’t compete with the speed of the takeout and drive-thru options down the road and that, in a town of under 10,000 people, offering delivery isn’t feasible, given insurance and staffing requirements. Besides, she says, she’s received only a handful of phone calls asking about delivery during the shutdown. Patios are now permitted to open, but Lavigne says she can only open a handful of tables: “I cannot make a big patio, because of the truck yard and all the dust that comes through.”

While restaurants and dining spots everywhere provide a sense of community, Lavigne says, diners and truck stops play a special role in smaller towns. She recalls an extended family that used to meet regularly at Gilli’s: “They were from Timmins, and the other family was in North Bay. And they meet here again just to have a get-together. It's kind of a meeting place, a social place.”

Danny Whalen, a councillor for Temiskaming Shores and president of the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities, sees a lot more in the roadside stop than just eggs and coffee. “The mom and pop shops are basically the heart and soul of a community,” he says. “You can even see on social media, they'll have those ‘Remember When From Community X’ page, and you never hear them say, ‘Oh, I remember that big-box store; I used to shop there all the time.’ They're always talking about the smaller restaurants.”

Back at Gilli’s, Lavigne looks back to the truck stop’s dining area, where the chairs are turned over onto the tables. “Usually, it’s packed here,” she says. However, she won’t quit just yet. “I will just use all that I’ve got to stay open. I’m losing money — but helping people.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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