When your plow driver is quarantined: How COVID could leave Vermonters snowed in longer

Clearing snow from roads and sidewalks is never a cakewalk in Vermont. This winter, the COVID-19 pandemic has delivered to plow crews — and the general public — a thicker slice of uncertainty.

The most troubling scenario: widespread infection and quarantine among plow-truck drivers. A barrage of heavy-dumping snowstorms.

Road-clearing delays, common enough after a hefty blizzard, would likely become longer than usual, local public works directors agree.

How long will we wait for the plows?

Predictions are tough when it comes to a new disease like COVID, said Dennis Lutz, director of public works in Essex: “We’ve never been down this road before.”     

Yet, years of emergency training, coupled with special health precautions since March, have solidified his team’s commitment.

“People will need to know that we’re doing everything we can — and that still might not be enough,” Lutz said.

A snow plow blasts through the intersection of Bank and Church Streets in Burlington in February 2014 as city crews worked to keep the roads clear in steady snow.

This fall, he spelled out the heads-up his department might issue if COVID cases rise — in ranked, three-tier alerts:

  • Green, as you might expect, means little or no disruption to motorists — the case when one or two employees are out with a short-term illness.
  • Yellow: The department is running at three-quarter strength due to illness. Expect four to eight hours’ delay.
  • Red: At least half of Essex’s licensed plow-truck drivers are unable to work. Road clearing will be “severely impacted,” with delays ranging from 24 – 48 hours.

Lutz’s counterparts in other Chittenden County communities have similar contingency plans in place.

Colchester’s crews, like those in like Essex, have for years rehearsed how they tackle big jobs when they are understaffed, said Bryan Osborne, Colchester’s public works director.

Depleted by COVID, crews would prioritize emergency routes, dangerous hills and vital supply corridors, as they always do, Osborne said. Side streets and sidewalks would be tended to later.

And, as usual, some plans will fall short, he added: “At the end of the day, nothing’s foolproof.” 

Help with plowing from the neighboring town?

Storm-slammed public works departments can count on another protocol: Crews from neighboring towns rarely come to the rescue, said Colchester’s Osborne.

“I like the idea of mutual aid for road plowing,” he added. “But it’s not like fire-and-rescue. If there’s a big structure fire in Burlington, it’s easy for crews to respond from Colchester and Essex — because there’s almost certainly not going to be a big structure fire happening simultaneously in those towns.”

With snow, it’s different, Osborne said, “It snows everywhere; it’s not just in one town.”

A snow plow clears parking lots at Cairns Recreation Arena in South Burlington on Monday, December 27, 2010.

Furthermore, towns don’t typically budget for plowing roads outside their boundaries.

Even in uneventful years, “everybody’s got just enough to take care of what they’ve got,” said Paul Goodrich, director of Shelburne’s highway department.

The search for reinforcements

Shelburne’s plow brigade consists of four drivers, including Goodrich. A single mechanic maintains all the town’s vehicles, including those for police, fire and ambulance services.

In a pinch, a driver with the sewer department might fill in — if he’s not likewise swamped with work, Goodrich said.

“If COVID does hit us, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” he added. “It’s going to be tough.”

A snow plow makes its way up College Street in Burlington in 2015.

Private contractors provided helpful back-up in previous decades Goodrich added, but the market has changed: There are fewer out-of-work drivers out there; anyone with experience has already booked clients for the winter, or has retired.

It’s a perception shared in many Chittenden County town offices.

“Not everyone wants highway work these days,” he said. “It’s 24/7 — from November on, you’ve got to be on call.”

Looking for work?

Williston and Burlington have openings for plow-truck drivers. But eager wannabes present another set of problems, most of them revolving around insurance, accidents and liability, according to Lutz, Essex’s public works chief.

“Typically it takes three to five years to develop expertise on a big plow truck,” Lutz said. “I can’t afford to get someone green out there.”

West of Middlesex, experienced freelancers are scarce, confirmed Todd Law, director of maintenance for Vermont Agency of Transportation.

Still, he’s always looking for backup. VTrans’ ranks “are always running a little lean” — even though it has buffered against routine illness-related absences with about 1.4 drivers per plow truck, Law said.

More:‘Wow!’ Now you can track your plow

A city snow plow clears a sidewalk on King Street in Burlington at 7:45 a.m. on Nov. 12, 2019.

Plow drivers tend to be a dedicated bunch, he added. Normally that’s a blessing: Historically they tend to show up for a 16-hour shift, shrugging off a cough or light cold or flu symptoms.

Not any more.

“We’re not going to take any chances — and we haven’t been. With COVID, our deep bench could dwindle really fast,” Law said.

About 40 employees at the agency have volunteered to fill gaps in the plow crews’ ranks, if needed. Many can already manage a pickup-mounted plow; others are becoming certified for the commercial drivers license required for big rigs.

Law is among the volunteers.

“I could get the call, and I’d jump in a truck,” he said.

The arrival to Vermont’s largest city of four new snow-throwing sidewalk tractors — “snow dragons,” to residents — has already led to improved morale at the Department of Public Works, said spokesman Rob Goulding.

New tractors designed to clear sidewalks (machines also known as "snow dragons") line up at the Burlington Public Works Department in this undated photo from 2020.

Contact Joel Banner Baird at 802-660-1843 or joelbaird@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @VTgoingUp.

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