The season’s first measurable snowfall has state and county transportation departments planning how to clear roads this season should a COVID outbreak sideline their drivers.
Hennepin County is arming its drivers with their own personal stash of cleaning supplies. Ramsey County will schedule 30 minutes between shift changes to minimize mingling among drivers, and it will have drivers come to work in uniform so they can skip the locker room.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation is prepared to redo routes and limit the number of people allowed into truck stations. Every snowplow driver will have to fill out a health assessment about their temperature and possible symptoms before going into work.
All three agencies say they have drawn up contingency plans to staff plows if too many drivers get sick.
“We can handle whatever the weather throws at us,” said Hennepin County Roads Operations Manager Andy Kraemer, noting plows were ready to roll Tuesday if enough snow had piled up.
But if a coronavirus outbreak strikes plow operators, Kraemer said the county will be ready for that, too. Drivers need not worry, he said — all 2,200 lane miles of county roads will get plowed.
“I feel good about it,” said Kraemer, who noted that Hennepin’s transportation department has even mixed its own sanitizer to make sure there is plenty on hand. “We have had all summer to practice [COVID protocols] and we’ve done a good job.”
Hennepin County employs 78 drivers spread out among five garages. Should one driver or several need to quarantine, county managers plan to shuffle drivers between garages to fill absences, and put foremen and supervisors behind the wheel if necessary.
“We haven’t had to use that yet, but there is that option,” Kraemer said. The county also can reach out to cities within its borders to help cover routes that his drivers can’t, he said.
Ramsey County officials said they were down a few drivers due to normal turnover but still have enough to plow county roads. If the flu or coronavirus hits the ranks, mechanics could be asked to plow and overtime would become “normal business,” said Ted Schoenecker, the county’s public works director.
A big shortage of drivers could mean prioritizing which roads get plowed first. “We’d go after the bigger volume roads first,” Schoenecker said. “Drivers will have to be flexible and patient.”
MnDOT revised training for new drivers this year. Instead of having a large two-week class at Camp Ripley in Little Falls, the agency broke up its Snow Plow Operator Training into smaller groups and held courses in each of its eight state districts. Operators in the metro are wrapping up training this week.
MnDOT has about 1,800 full- and part-time drivers, but a COVID outbreak at “even one truck station could have an impact,” said Anne Meyer, a MnDOT spokeswoman. So it’s looking at remapping routes in the event of a driver shortage.
It’s also looking at how to share drivers if a district or garage runs short. The agency is surveying employees from other departments to find out who might have a commercial driver’s license — a requirement to drive a snowplow — and could help in a pinch.
“We are preparing for anything,” Meyer said. “We are buffering our backup plans.”
Officials at all three agencies said Tuesday that blades have been reattached to their plows and salt loaded into trucks. Their drivers are ready to work, they said.
“It’s kind of like opening golf season,” Schoenecker said. “They are antsy for the first one.”