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MITCHELLVILLE — Aside from fewer cars on the roads, life is pretty much normal for Eric Webb, a truck driver from Council Bluffs.

“Traffic has backed off a little bit, you can see that, but otherwise it’s just another day for me,” Webb said during a rest stop here last week.

Webb, who hauls mail for the U.S. Postal Service and has been driving professionally for six years, said the only thing uncomfortable for him lately was the driver seat of his brand new Mack rig.

As Americans hunker down in isolation against the highly contagious coronavirus, truck drivers have been delivering goods as usual across the country. At a rest stop in Mitchellville, a town of 2,300 people on the far eastern edge of Polk County along Interstate 80, trucks rumble in and out, proof that, as some businesses close and many workers are laid off, COVID-19 hasn’t put the brakes on the trucking industry.

In fact, industry experts say trucking has boomed in March as demand surged, fed by shoppers buying bulk quantities of essential goods ranging from eggs to bleach wipes. Brenda Neville, president of the Iowa Motor Truck Association, attributed the spike in demand to customers stocking up ahead of social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

"Trucking companies are experiencing increased volumes primarily because of some of the changing consumer purchasing patterns — for example, there are more trucks hauling toilet paper now because of the increased demand as a result of a shift in the consumer’s perceived need for toilet paper," Neville wrote in an email.

Data from industry publication Freight Waves shows demand for trucking was significantly higher this March than in March 2019. The domestic truckload volume was up 25.9% year over year. 

Another figure spiked even more dramatically: Tender rejections, a measure of what proportion of loads are rejected by carriers, either because there are no trucks available or demand in another area is higher, hit 18.7%, a 223% increase over last March.

High percentages indicate demand is up and that truck capacity is tight. Iowa markets were especially competitive in data from March 26: tender rejection was at 25.8% in Des Moines on Thursday and above 20% in both the Dubuque and Cedar Rapids markets.

But a Thursday report from Freight Waves predicted the trucking boom won't last. After volumes peaked on March 23, they began to decline for the first time in a month.

The report said the closure of additional nonessential retailers — as Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered in Iowa on Thursday — "will cut off volumes abruptly."

Neville said Iowa trucking companies have been preparing for that reality.

"As more and more states start doing the shelter in place and businesses of all types are being closed down ... that demand is going to drop off significantly," Neville said.

She said several companies that usually ship nonessential items like furniture are switching over to carrying groceries and other high-demand shipments. She stressed the uncertainty of the months ahead and said some trucking companies were looking back to their models during the Great Recession to prepare for what may come next.

► More: The latest on the coronavirus outbreak in Iowa

As the outbreak closes businesses and shutters restaurants, the landscape of the road is changing, too. Many states have closed rest stops along major highways, leaving drivers without a place to use the restroom, purchase food or park overnight.

Dan Val Alstine, president of Des Moines-based Ruan Transportation Management Systems, which employs some 4,600 truck drivers, praised Reynolds and Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg for deciding to keep Iowa's rest stops open so far.

"They haven't taken a knee-jerk to shut down waysides and shut down those public facilities," said Van Alstine, who also serves as vice-chairman of the American Trucking Associations trade group. "Other states have done that, and it caused a huge issue for our industry."

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But even with Iowa's rest stops still open, drivers are encountering other difficulties. Ryan Hill, an over-the-road driver from Arkansas who was passing through Iowa last week, said he keeps a refrigerator in his truck, but buying groceries to keep it stocked has been a challenge.

“When I go to Walmart to get food, there’s nothing on the shelves,” Hill said, adding that it’s even tougher to find places to get take-out on the road.

“At truck stops, they’re shutting down all the restaurants because they don’t want you touching the food,” he said.

Dave Allen, a truck driver from Knoxville, didn’t want to mention the company he drives for, a Midwestern convenience store chain. Getting food hasn’t been a big problem for him, but he feels bad for his OTR comrades who don’t have such easy access to fast food.

Although Iowa restaurants and fast-food eateries can still offer drive-through service, the lanes are frequently too small for commercial semi-trailers.

“You can’t just whip in somewhere and get food,” Allen said.

Van Alstine said some truck stops in Iowa, with their dining rooms closed, have arranged special delivery for truck drivers. Employees are carrying orders out to parking lots and handing them through drivers' windows.

Allen, who had pulled into the Mitchellville rest stop for a quick bathroom break, said he’d noticed people washing their hands a lot more, a practice he hopes to see continue long after the pandemic is over.

But there is an eeriness out there, as people shed their good manners in the name of hygiene.

“People are keeping their distances,” Allen said. “You don’t hold the door open anymore.”

Allen, too, has seen fewer cars on the road.

“I noticed this morning at five o’clock that there were a lot more trucks on the road and a lot less four-wheelers,” he said, chuckling that it was kind of a nice change.

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Sgt. Alex Dinkla with the Iowa State Patrol said troopers had seen passenger vehicle traffic drop by about 50% in recent days, but commercial traffic remained unchanged.

The Transportation Department’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration temporarily suspended limits on the hours truckers ferrying essential supplies could drive each day.

As a way to show appreciation to truck drivers, the Iowa Motor Truck Association handed out thousands of box lunches at a weigh station near Mitchellville on Tuesday. As trucks of various sizes rolled in, association members reached up to hand drivers the meals. The gesture was just one way to “show appreciation for all that they do,” Neville said.

The governor called out the effort during a Friday press conference.

"The Iowa Motor Truck Association and Iowa restaurants are providing free lunches for truck drivers who remain hard at work, keeping our economy moving and ensuring our grocery stores are stocked and getting critical medical supplies delivered to where they need them the most," Reynolds said.

Allen, the Knoxville driver, said he believes life on the road will be busy for the months to come, and adjustments will need to be made to accommodate longer hours behind the wheel. But, he said, the people he feels for most are the workers in the health care field, from doctors to nursing home staff, who are going to be living a life of chaos for much longer.

“They’re in a bind,” he said.

Bryon Houlgrave is a photojournalist at the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at bhoulgrave@registermedia.com, or on Twitter at @bryon_houlgrave.

Katie Akin is a retail reporter for the Register. Reach her at kakin@registermedia.com or at 515-284-8041. Follow her on Twitter at @katie_akin.

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