By Andrew Hay
LAS VEGAS, N.M., March 25 (Reuters) - At a truck stop here, a driver sprays his shoes with disinfectant to protect himself and his partner from coronavirus, another laughs and sees no threat, while a veteran trucker says he's heading for the hills, in fear for his life.
They are some of the millions of U.S., Canadian and Mexican truckers tasked with hauling food and goods to keep grocery stores stocked and essential services running as over half the U.S. population is told to stay home to stop the virus' spread.
In a windy truck park by the side of an eerily quiet Interstate 25, drivers hold up masks and gloves given them by loved ones for protection. Others say they don't need them for a "virus panic" created by the media.
Like nearly all these truckers, Marvin Gakin, 71, is determined to keep working. He hauls beef and pork and recognizes his essential role if Americans are to eat.
"I've had pneumonia four times, so it would kill me, and I'm very cautious, but I want to keep doing this job," said Gakin, of Chamberlain, South Dakota, cleaning his hands and credit card with disinfectant wipes after buying a sandwich.
Keeping rest stops like this one open is essential for truckers, whose biggest challenge these days is finding food and bathrooms as retail businesses shut down, said Sean McNally, a spokesman for the American Trucking Associations.
Here on the edge of the Southern Plains, where drivers can be heard speaking in English, Spanish and French, two truckers from Canada try to keep their cab safe as they head to Arizona to pick up Mexican lettuce.
"I'm not scared, we're doing what we can so this doesn't overwhelm us," said a Canadian driver, spraying disinfectant on his passenger door handle as his co-driver sat nearby, holding up company-supplied masks.
Truckers from nearby Texas are not so worried.
"I think it's bullshit. The news media made it worse than it is, and I'm not the only one who thinks that," said Floyd Smith, out of Dallas, Texas, joking with a fellow driver as they cleaned windshields on their Peterbilt trucks. "I don't think it's dangerous."
Still, the drivers from Texas said they were staying away from people and washing their hands more often. None of the U.S.-based drivers had been provided masks, gloves or disinfectant by their employers.
"A lot of these truck drivers are saying 'I'm not going to get it,'" said Brad Turner, 63, of Golden, Colorado, taking a break in his cab with his dog. "They still have that idea it's a hoax."
Turner, a life-long smoker who owns his rig, said his pediatrician son told him to get away from people as he would die if he caught the virus. So he left his trailer behind and was heading south to hole up in New Mexico.
"I'm not risking my life over it," said Turner, who planned to stay with a childhood friend near Albuquerque. "I was hauling a lot of imported wine to Denver, and people can live without wine." (Reporting by Andrew Hay in Las Vegas, New Mexico; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Dan Grebler)
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