Coronavirus Closures Make It Hard for Truckers To Get a Meal, Yet Some States Still Refuse To Let Food Trucks Operate at Rest Stops

The federal government has given states permission to open up highway rest stops to food truck service. Many are deciding to keep their protectionist bans in place.


An unintended consequence of states' emergency closures of restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic is that the truck drivers rushing food, medicine, and masks across the country aren't able to find a decent meal on the road.

To make these drivers' lives easier, federal regulators have temporarily eased existing restrictions on food trucks operating at highway rest stops. But that move has faced resistance from truckstop owners and state governments who've long opposed any commercialization of rest stops, and who are not keen on peeling back their own protectionist regulations.

Stories of restaurant closures frustrating truckers' attempts to grab lunch have been a staple of local media's coverage during the pandemic. While truck stops remain open, many of the restaurants at those stops are closed; allowing traditional restaurants to offer delivery, carryout, and drive-thru doesn't help truckers whose rigs are too large for restaurant parking lots and drive-thru windows.

"That access to food, access to bathroom facilities, those are two of the things we heard about very early on in all of this. And it's still is a concern," says John Esparza, president of the Texas Trucking Association (TXTA). "I'm in Austin Texas. All the places I have picked up food, none of the places a truck could get in and out of."

"Let's say if you have a Taco Bell that's only doing drive-thru and trucks can't fit through there, and they have a policy of not providing service to anyone not in a vehicle, that's going to be a problem," Norita Taylor of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association told Reason back in March.

To be eligible for federal highway funding, states are prohibited from allowing commercial activity at Interstate Highway rest stops. In early April, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) announced that it would be waiving this regulation for the duration of the national emergency President Donald Trump declared on March 13.

"Food trucks may provide vital sustenance for interstate commercial truck drivers and others who are critical to the Nation's continued ability to deliver needed food and relief supplies," said the FHWA in an April 3 announcement. "Vending machines may not be adequate to provide the necessary sustenance, and in many cases the vending machines may not be regularly stocked at the present time."

This announcement, while welcomed by many in the trucking industry, still requires states to take action to lift the food truck prohibitions they'd imposed at the behest of federal regulators.

According to the Institute for Justice, 10 states have followed through and lifted their own restrictions on food trucks, including California, Idaho, Arizona, and Arkansas. Louis Campion of the Maryland Motor Truck Association says Maryland had lifted restrictions at rest stops along I-95 as well.

Other states have yet to act, however, and there is already some resistance to federal highway regulators' move from associations representing truck stops and restaurants.

In early April, a coalition including the National Association of Truck Stop Owners (NATSO) and the National Restaurant Association (NRA) sent a letter to the agency asking that the waiver of enforcement against commercial activity at rest stops not expand beyond food trucks, and that it be swiftly withdrawn at the end of the emergency.

"We hope that FHWA's non-enforcement directive does not result in foodservice transactions being redirected to food trucks from nearby rest area vending machines or struggling off-highway businesses, but rather that food trucks operate solely at rest areas that are located on stretches of the Interstate where there are no open foodservice operations in close proximity that are available to truck drivers," reads the coalition's letter.

NATSO has long been a critic of commercialized rest stops, saying on its website that "interchange businesses cannot compete with commercialized rest areas, which are conveniently located on the highway right-of-way, and would create a de facto monopoly in favor of businesses operated out of rest areas."

Concerns that allowing food trucks at rest stops would lead to a loss of business for truck stops—particularly now when many are seeing a drop off in business or being forced to close their dining areas—is causing some state departments of transportation (DOTs) to shy away from lifting their own restrictions on food trucks.

Crystal Collins, president of the North Carolina Trucking Association, says there was some discussion about allowing food trucks at rest stops in her state, while potentially limiting their operations to areas with few other food service options.

However, she says there was little interest in this idea at the state's DOT because of its potential to take business away from established truck stops, and because it would require an act of the legislature. "They don't want to hinder or take business away from the truck stops that are open," Collins says.

A spokesperson for the North Carolina DOT wrote in an email that the department "will not pursue allowing food trucks at rest areas because state law prohibits commercial activities inside the right of way."

Jessica Gandy, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, says that according to her analysis, North Carolina's DOT could waive food truck restrictions on their own initiative. "It's fully in the purview of their DOT to do it. They do have the power to waive that ban if they choose to, but also the governor could do it by issuing an executive order," she says.

In addition to being bad policy, Gandy argues that bans on food truck service could be unconstitutional as well.

"There is a protectionist element. Their concerned that if other economic activities start happening at those rest areas, other nearby businesses, existing businesses will suffer, because customers may prefer to eat at food trucks," Gandy says. "Restricting consumer choice so a private party can make money is plainly unconstitutional."

The Institute for Justice has sued local governments over their protectionist food truck restrictions prior to the pandemic. Last week, they sent letters to a number of state DOTs asking them to suspend food truck restrictions at rest stops.

Lifting these restrictions is only part of the battle. Food truck operators and their advocates have said there is still a need for coordination with state DOTs to get temporary permits and secure parking at rest stops.

"Who cares if Ohio opens up spots, if they don't have any sort of registry, schedule or way to get the information out to drivers. There has to be coordination. No state wants to do that," Matt Geller of the National Food Truck Association said to Transportation Topics.

Logistical concerns about parking have factored into Texas regulators deliberations on allowing food trucks at rest stops, Esparza says. The TXTA has been in talks with regulators about opening up rest stops for food service for several weeks now, and he expects some sort of regulatory waiver to be issued within the next week.

That will allow some more choices for drivers.

"What we are talking about is giving the truckers some more choices," Esparza says. "the truck driver hasn't changed what he or she is doing. They're out there delivering every day anyway. Let's get these men and women more options."

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  1. Saw this on Crowder today. Looks like Youtube is censoring videos of ER docs merely talking about how now that they have better real-world data, they feel things should start opening back up.

    A .5 death rate is still pretty nasty in my opinion, but I agree it’s not shut down the global economy nasty.

    1. Even if it was 1%, wouldn’t that mean that 99% of cases didn’t result in death? Or am I doing math wrong?

      1. I think you’re looking at it backwards maybe? You’re talking about number of infections of standard flu vs cv19?

        Standard flu has a death rate of .1%.

        I don’t know what the infection rate for the flu is (standard flu). But since I presume that the infection rate for CV19 will be roughly the same as standard flu– maybe a little worse because of its propensity to live on surfaces, a .5% death rate would be 5x that of normal flu. Definitely something to be concerned about.

        One of the problems with even standard flu, is the CDCs “accepted numbers” are ‘estimates’. Often they’re revised downwards after they look at other things like co-morbidities and make adjustments.

        I said from the beginning of this thing that whatever policy was put in place, it should be a simple matter of revising that policy in real time as observed data becomes better known. What’s deeply concerning here is that as we’re getting better data, it seems that policymakers have determined they’re going to stick with a total lockdown no matter what.

        1. No, I’m saying that if the Infection Fatality Rate is 1%, doesn’t that mean that 99% of those infected live and 1% die?

          Which, to be sure, would be a ridiculous number of people compared to a normal flu season with only .1%, but you still have really good odds of coming out alive.

          Am I just totally off base?

          1. Yes, that would be correct.

            Standard flu affects around 30,000,000 people a year in the us. (estimated between 9 and 45 million annually). So under normal circumstances ~10% of the population gets the flu.

            However, I don’t know how the prevalence of existing flu vaccine affects that. CV-19 has no vaccine and so there’s no herd immunity to it.

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  2. Well, after all, those damn truckers are an independent bunch, and tend to vote for Republicans.

    1. Unless they’re Teamsters.

      1. With the exception of a handful of very old carriers the Teamsters haven’t had any influence on trucking since Jimmy Hoffa. Trump’s FMCSA has done a lot to modify some of Obama’s regulatory excesses so I’m guessing a majority of drivers are supporters.

        1. Supporters of what? I’ve lost track.

      2. Teamsters usually operate “day-cab” tractors (no sleeper) and short trailers. They run either locally from a single terminal, or back and forth between two or three, starting in the morning and being home at night.
        Even the majority of day-cab drivers are non-union.
        Union drivers have always been a minority, even back in Hoffa’s day.
        This means that, yes, drivers DO tend to be independent, and those who make it a year or more in the industry tend to be far MORE independent than most people are.

  3. Truly, this (particular) disease shows above all that we suffer from an excess of government.

    God help us in recovering from this.

  4. Coronavirus Closures Make It Hard for Truckers To Get a Meal,

    No they don’t.

    Look, the closures are stupid and yes, inconvenience these drivers. But you can brown bag, you can get takeout. Long-haul trucks can fit an ice-chest.

    1. You have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. Even before the DemPanic, it has been hard for truckers to get a meal. Few fast-food places are near anyplace to park a 75-foot, 80,000 lb semi. Even few real restaurants are. The exceptions are usually located in truck stops, which are many miles apart and are often full by the end of the day. And these are now CLOSED by government diktat.

      So much for “you can get take-out.”

      Add to that the eagerness that local officials set out fines for parking big rigs anywhere in their towns, and you have just also locked truckers out of the same grocery stores that they deliver goods for.

      “Brown bag” from WHERE? Most long-haul drivers spend a couple of weeks at a time away from home. Hard to carry that much food in an ice chest. And, obviously, you have never spent any time in the cab of a semi tractor, or you wouldn’t be so sure that there is room for an ice chest large enough to be of any use even for two days in a row.

      1. And these are now CLOSED by government diktat.

        Where? I’ve not seen it.

        1. Pennsylvania, for one

  5. More abuses from tyrannical state governments. Sickening how these little men and women think they own us. You know what to do, and it means voting the bastards out in November, for several years until they get the fucking message.

    1. ^^This.

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