NATSO, along with 10 associations representing cities and communities, tens of thousands of off-highway foodservice businesses and blind merchants that manage vending machines at Interstate rest areas, sent a letter April 8 to the Federal Highway Administration regarding its recent announcement that it will not enforce the federal rest area commercialization ban against states that allow commercial food trucks to operate and sell food at interstate rest areas.
The letter was designed to highlight that off-highway restaurants and foodservice operations are struggling to remain open, with sales generally down north of 50%. If these businesses are unable to remain open, it will exacerbate the trucking community's concerns with respect to convenient access to food options as they heroically deliver essential supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The letter, which was signed by NATSO as well as the National Restaurant Association, the International Franchise Association, the National League of Cities, the National Association of Convenience Stores, and the National Federation of the Blind among others, expressed hope that food trucks at rest areas would not be competing with these struggling off-highway restaurants and foodservice operations, but rather be located where there are no other viable food options for truck drivers in close proximity.
Additional signatories included the National Automatic Merchandising Association; National Franchisee Association; National Retail Federation; Petroleum Marketers Association of America; and the Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America.
“We understand that the emergency we face as a nation necessitates outside-the-box thinking,” the groups said in their letter to FHWA Administrator Nicole Nason. “This is especially true with respect to ensuring that our nation’s truck drivers have access to places where they can rest and buy food as they move and deliver essential goods and supplies.
“We would like to be collaborative partners with FHWA so that off-highway businesses can remain open during the pandemic and continue serving millions of truck drivers every week. We believe that the best way to ensure this can occur is to help those businesses survive and stay open during this pandemic.”
NATSO President and CEO Lisa Mullings said that trucktop and travel plazas remain open and committed to serving truck drivers. "Although a number of state rest areas have closed during the pandemic, I have not heard of a single truckstop being forced to shut down," Mullings said.
FHWA recently announced that states may temporarily allow food trucks to operate at rest areas within the Interstate system right-of-way. Longstanding federal law prohibits the sale of food, fuel and commercial service at federally funded Interstate Highway rest areas. FHWA has said that states must come back into compliance with the longstanding federal statute after the Presidentially-declared state of emergency ends.
Since the President and public health officials mandated the closure of sit-down dining restaurants and food courts as a way of avoiding the spread of COVID-19, restaurants have been navigating an unprecedented sales decline. They are working tirelessly to transform their restaurants to serve customers and truck drivers with take-out, curbside and delivery options.
However, early economic forecasts indicate that the restaurant industry could sustain at least a $225 billion loss as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and be forced to eliminate between 5 million to 7 million jobs. If this trajectory continues, it will make it increasingly difficult for truck drivers to find convenient food options.
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