Massachusetts snowplow driver shortage due to COVID-19 expected to affect storm response

"You've never heard me stand before you and say this."

A snow plow clears the road surface on Route 7, Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019 in New Ashford, Mass. A powerful winter storm that’s been tormenting travelers across the U.S. since before Thanksgiving moved to the Northeast on Sunday, packing one last punch of snow and ice as people make their way home after the holiday weekend. (GIllian Jones/The Berkshire Eagle via AP)
A snowplow clears the road during a snowstorm last year on Route 7 in New Ashford. –GIllian Jones / The Berkshire Eagle via AP, File

In some ways, with many residents already working and going to school remotely, Gov. Charlie Baker says that COVID-19 has coincidentally made it “easier” for the state to dig out from the snowstorm that arrives Wednesday night.

But in other ways, the pandemic has undeniably made the process more challenging.

Stephanie Pollack, the state’s transportation secretary, said Wednesday afternoon that a shortage of plow drivers due to COVID-19 means that “some major roads may have only one lane open for travel” during the heaviest periods of snowfall.

“In the nearly six years I’ve been doing these winter press conferences, you’ve never heard me stand before you and say this, but there may even be times that just a single lane is open for travel on some roadways,” Pollack said. “This is due to the snowfall rate per hour, but also because state and local public works officials have some driver shortages due to the coronavirus.”

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While she said that state and local officials have been working for months to prepare for the first major snowstorm of the pandemic, Pollack said that only 90 percent of state crews and contractors are available due to positive COVID-19 tests or ongoing quarantines.

With a smaller or more isolated storm, that wouldn’t be a problem. But with much of Massachusetts expected to get hit with around a foot of snow, Pollack said crews will be spread thin across the state.

“We may need to cut back at the heaviest times to make sure that there’s a safe travel lane for everybody before going back and clearing the rest of the road,” she said.

Pollack added that the state does at least have flexibility to move drivers around, so no particular region of the state will be hit particularly hard by the shortage. MassDOT has also limited plows to one driver per truck and closed break rooms to limit COVID-19 transmission.

“We’ve been planning for a winter with the pandemic for months,” Pollack said.

According to Baker, perhaps the “biggest disruption” is the storm’s potential impact on the state’s drive-through COVID-19 testing sites, many of which are located in parking lots and involve tents. The governor encouraged residents planning to get a COVID-19 test Thursday to check in with their respective site for a status update.

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“My expectation is that it will take those folks — just like it takes everybody else — a while to dig out and clean up and and get back in business,” he said.

Pollack says the state won’t deploy plows to testing centers and hospitals, if needed, until the second “mop up” phase of snow removal.

“When you’re testing [50,000 to 100,000] people a day, if you lose a day, it’s actually a big deal,” Baker later added.

State officials have reiterated that they don’t expect the storm to affect the distribution or administration of the first COVID-19 vaccine doses, which arrived in the state earlier this week.

However, they are urging people to stay off the roads so that crews can clear them as soon as possible to ensure access to health care services (as Baker noted, the timing of the heaviest snowfall does mostly coincide with the nighttime stay-at-home advisory he imposed last month). Officials expect — and are particularly concerned about — the likelihood of a flash freeze Thursday morning, as the temperatures plummet.

“We’re obviously asking people to stay off the roads and, especially tomorrow if you can, stay home,” Baker said.

“I do think tomorrow is going to be a difficult day,” he said. “We haven’t seen a day like this around here in a long time.”

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