Ports Wait for Pandemic Peak

Port of Baltimore
Port of Baltimore

Published Mar 16, 2020 5:30 PM by Tom Peters

While news begins to filter out from China that the country is slowly recovering from the impacts of coronavirus with the country’s major seaports moving export cargo backlog and accepting imports, other parts of the world are still waiting for the pandemic to peak.

Europe is now the hot spot for COVID-19 with countries like Italy and Spain seeing the worst of the disease. The impacts of COVID-19 are widespread and, as with the Asian countries, first to bear the brunt of the outbreak may be trade between Europe and North America which could be impacted over the next several months.

According to the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) services trade barometer, global trade growth had weakened toward the end of 2019 and into the first quarter of 2020. However, “The indicator does not yet fully reflect the economic impact of the COVID-19 virus and may decline further in the coming months. The current barometer reading and the spread of COVID-19 suggest that services trade may slow further in coming periods,” according to the WTO. The barometer suggests one of largest declines in trade through January has been container shipping and going forward that decline may continue with the spread of COVID-19.

Supporting the WTO’s thoughts, the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) with headquarters in Paris and 36 member countries, “Growth in the euro area is projected to remain sub-par, at around one percent per annum on average in 2020-21, although the impact of the virus outbreak will weaken outcomes in the first half of 2020.”

Closer to home, the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) has warned against potential cargo decline from Europe in the coming months because of COVID-19.

“Supply chain disruption is a different issue. The overall economic impact of this type of crisis can easily run into the tens of billions of dollars,” said Chris Connor, the AAPA’s President and CEO. “Due to the coronavirus outbreak, cargo volumes at many U.S. ports during the first quarter of 2020 may be down by 20 percent or more compared to 2019,” he said.

The Port of Baltimore is obviously already feeling the virus impact.

“With current declines in international container volumes due to the coronavirus, Ports America Chesapeake, the company that operates the Seagirt Marine Terminal at the Port of Baltimore, closed on March 5 and will close, March 17, which is held as an optional labor holiday depending on business for multiple ports,” the Maryland Port Administration said in a statement. “In addition, Seagirt Marine Terminal gate hours are now 7 a.m. until 4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday. This reduction of one hour and 15 minutes in operating hours only impacts Seagirt. Seagirt Marine Terminal handles the Port of Baltimore’s container business,” the statement added.

“The Port of Baltimore has five other public marine terminals which are continuing to operate regular hours. The port is open for business. The other five terminals that carry farm and construction equipment, cars/light trucks, paper products and breakbulk cargo (such as transit vehicles and yachts) will continue to operate regular hours,” the statement concluded.

A number of ports in Canada say it’s a bit too early to determine the virus’s impact on marine trade.

At the Port of Montreal, Canada’s second largest container port, Melanie Nadeau, Director of Communications, Montreal Port Authority, said, “Although the authorities in matters of health and maritime security are prepared, we have not seen a concrete impact in connection with the COVID-19 for the moment at the Port of Montreal. At the moment container traffic is stable for both Europe and Asia. However, since the figures are only for January, it is too early to confirm whether or not the situation will have an impact on our traffic,” she said.

Nadeau added that “The Public Health Agency of Canada issues the notices regarding the measures required for COVID-19 and Transport Canada coordinates with marine stakeholders to implement them in the case of marine safety and security. Regarding COVID-19, Transport Canada has issued directives concerning the arrival of foreign ships and seafarers. Ship captains must submit a declaration from seafarers showing symptoms of the virus (fever, cough, etc.). No such declaration has been received to date at the Port of Montreal.”

At the Port of Halifax, on Canada’s East Coast, there has been no impact from the virus reported as yet. Halifax has direct links with Europe with a service offered by Atlantic Container Lines. 

Fritz King, ACL’s Managing Director Canada, said at present it’s a little too soon to have any certainty of the impact of COVID-19.

“We are running pretty full on our import vessels through the end of the month. Our export vessels have been stable,” he said. However, he said “there are concerns that the current recession environment will have a negative effect on future cargo flows.”

In the meantime, ACL has sent the following message to its customers regarding its preparations to deal with COVID-19.

“As an organization with links between North America, North Europe, the Mediterranean and West Africa, the Grimaldi Group and ACL place top priority on the safety and health of our employees, customers and suppliers. Coronavirus (COVID-19) is an ever-changing situation and information is updated daily by the World Health Organization, North American and European government and Public Health authorities. We would like to update you on our preparedness should the outbreak have any impact on our service. We will issue regular communications while we continue to monitor this situation closely.”