LA, Long Beach ports’ cargo volumes from Asia dive in wake of coronavirus outbreak

The Port of Los Angeles on Tuesday, March 10, reported cargo volumes were down by nearly 23% in February over last year's numbers for the same month. While the Lunar New Year and tariffs have taken a toll on shipments, the coronavirus is the most recent factor in cutting port traffic, officials said. Factories in China, where an estimated half of the incoming cargo volume comes from in both the Ports of L.A. and Long Beach, have been slow to return to normal levels following the holiday and the outbreak of the virus.

In the Port of Long Beach, February cargo was down 9.8 percent compared to the same month last year, said port spokesman Lee Peterson, adding that the drop is "due to the canceled sailings caused by the coronavirus situation."

Virus 'significantly' impacts trade

"While cargo volumes are important, the coronavirus is first and foremost a public-health crisis that needs to be brought under control with the collaboration of governments and medical experts from around the world," L.A. port Executive Director Gene Seroka said. Maritime trade, Seroka, said, has been "significantly impacted." "As factory production in China remains at low levels, we expect soft volumes in March," he added in a written statement.

Mario Cordero, executive director of the Long Beach port, said canceled sailings continue. "With the extended factory closures and slowdown of goods movement in China and other Asian countries in February due to Lunar New Year and COVID-19, we are seeing shipping lines needing to cancel some sailings," he said. Going forward, Seroka said, there also will be a need to "return empty containers to Asia and push lingering U.S. export boxes out swiftly."

Surge around the corner?

A possible surge in cargo volume, however, is anticipated once production levels ramp up, port officials said.

"Once the virus is contained, we may see a surge of cargo, and our terminals, labor and supply chain will be ready to handle it," Cordero said. Also noted in the written remarks was reference to the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the city of Long Beach this week. Work continues to decline significantly on the docks in both ports, with longshore union members seeing a drop in available jobs and personal income.

Ray Familathe, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, said Tuesday that job availability remains a major challenge on the waterfronts. "It's a little better than last week, but there have been severe impacts," he said. "We're still leaving bodies (with no work) in the hall every day." Estimates are that it will be at least another six weeks or so before cargo is expected to ramp up again, Familathe said.

"Right now, they're telling us it will be May-June, but that's all predicated on reports that some factory workers are being returned to work (in China)," he said.

Cruise ships also affected

Adding to the problems is the major hit sustained by the cruise ship industry, which also relies on longshore labor. Over the weekend, a cruise out of Long Beach was delayed and another in the Port of Los Angeles was canceled altogether due to coronavirus concerns and tests on crew and passengers. The tests came back negative, but U.S. officials are cautioning people now to avoid taking cruises as the virus continues to spread throughout the nation.

The Grand Princess cruise ship idled off the coast of Northern California for days before it was allowed to dock in Oakland on Monday, March 5. At least 21 people on that ship tested positive for COVID-19. When the Royal Princess was in L.A. harbor Saturday, Familathe said, longshore workers were on board performing their regular duties when the CDC and other agencies shut the vessel down as a precaution.

Worker health concerns

"It's pretty challenging when a longshoreman is working a vessel and they have to start and stop work," he said. "We've had to do a lot of juggling.

But once again, it's our longshore men and women who are on the front lines and it's scary when you're hearing all the reports of new cases of people coming down with the virus. It's a real concern." Employers have provided workers with health and safety equipment such as gloves and hand sanitizers, he said.

The virus, Familathe said, will continue to affect dockworkers in the weeks to come. "They're really concerned," he said of the workers. "Maybe they have elderly parents living at home and they wonder, 'Am I putting myself in harm's way?' In the hall when members are having coffee now, it's not your normal conversations."

In the Port of Los Angeles, February imports decreased to 270,025 TEUs, or twenty-foot containers, which is the unit of measurement used, compared to the previous year. Exports decreased 5.7% to 134,468 TEUs.

For the first two months in 2020, total container volumes are about 1.4 million TEUs in the Port of Los Angeles, down 13% compared to January-February in 2019.

In the Port of Long Beach, 538,428 TEUs were moved in February 2020.

Imports dropped 17.9% to 248,592 TEUs while exports increased 19.3% to 125,559 TEUs in the Port of Long Beach.

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