At this writing, confirmed global cases of coronavirus stand at about 15 million, according to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus dashboard, with total global death count at about 621,000. In the U.S., deaths passed 140,000 out of a total confirmed case count of more than 4 million. President Donald Trump last week warned that the virus will get worse before it gets better.
While data are always in flux, it appears that our industry continues to do better overall than many shore industries. According to Jennifer Carpenter, CEO of The American Waterways Operators, it’s clear that the towing safety management systems (TSMSs) fostered by the Subchapter M compliance process have been a big part of the reason for this. For the past several years, putting TSMSs in place, consulting with third-party organizations and writing protocols have all been excellent preparation for the kinds of responses demanded by this unprecedented crisis.
Some far-thinking towing companies had already envisioned infectious-disease situations and written them into their TSMSs or performed drills incorporating infectious-disease scenarios. But in any case, the constant focus on safety and awareness required by Subchapter M preparation undoubtedly left inland navigation companies better prepared than some shore industries to deal with the crisis.
The isolated boat environment helps in putting procedures in place, keeping workplaces safe and identifying at-risk employees, but that isolation is not total and cannot be. As school season approaches, states, localities and school districts are engaged in an intense debate about whether or not to reopen schools, and how much.
Most data show that children are less vulnerable to the disease and can get it with few or no symptoms. Some data suggest they are less efficient spreaders than adults, but there is always a chance that they can spread it to older, more vulnerable family members staying at home. There have been isolated cases of young children getting very sick from the virus. If that child happens to be yours, it would be no comfort to know he or she was part of a tiny minority.
These are tough questions that have no easy answers. Many towboat crewmembers have school-age children, so whatever decision society makes about schools will affect boat crews. Keeping kids at home and on lockdown presents families with one set of challenges. If they go back to school, chances for exposure to the virus will increase as boat crews rotate on and off to spend time with their families.
Even if and when a coronavirus vaccine becomes available, it is very likely that the infectious-disease safety precautions being incorporated into safety management systems will be a permanent part of life aboard towboats for the indefinite future.