The nation’s ports are navigating a coronavirus-induced downturn in goods volumes, ranging from severe to moderate depending on China exposure, but they also are shipping more exports.
And most ports expect an upturn in April as factory restarts in China are expected to turn into increased container flows.
“What we predict is trade will come back slowly, and then it will come back with a roar,” said Joseph D. Harris, a spokesman for the Virginia Port Authority, which operates terminals in Hampton Roads.
The snapshot of ports activity, coming as the U.S. endures a deep economic shock caused by steps to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, is an early indication of how the coronavirus is affecting international trade. President Donald Trump has limited movement across borders but so far has avoided doing so on cargo.
Official data from the Census Bureau is unavailable for the period when the pandemic deepened in the U.S. and Europe. The bureau will release February international trade data in early April.
Virginia Port Authority import volumes were down by 7.4 percent in February from the same month a year earlier, but export volumes were up by 3.6 percent in container equivalents, or TEUs [twenty-foot equivalent units]. Harris attributed some of that uptick to increases in soybean and processed pork exports to China.
The Port of Long Beach, California, the nation’s second-busiest and one heavily exposed to China trade, reported a 17.9 percent decline in imports during February, but exports were up by 19.3 percent.
An even larger decline hit the Port of Los Angeles, No. 1 in the country in freight traffic, with import volume for February down by 22.5 percent. Export volumes also were down, but a more modest 5.7 percent.
Phillip Sanfield, a spokesman for the port, confirmed that more dock workers had been called back to work as arrivals of vessels from China began to pick up. He emphasized that the port continues to work full steam as an essential service, notwithstanding the more general stay-at-home order issued by state authorities in California.
“We are essential to keeping the supply chain open,” Sanfield said Friday.
Sanfield said the port is now working at 80-85 percent of normal cargo volumes, and managers expect freight traffic to pick up another 10 percent by mid- to late April as the Chinese economy gets back to work.
Georgia ports also rely heavily on incoming freight from China, in part because the widening of the Panama Canal increased vessel sizes that could call at East Coast ports.
“Through the first two weeks of March, container volume is off by 20 percent,” said Edward Fulford, a spokesman for the Georgia Ports Authority. “The Chinese New Year, coupled with COVID-19, caused the contraction of cargo. GPA is receiving reports that China is now operating at 80-85 percent and improving.”
Data for freight traffic at the Northwest Seaport Alliance, which manages ports at Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., was skewed by overshipping in early 2019 in anticipation of tariffs, according to a spokesperson. But shipments for the first two months of 2020 fell sharply, with imports down 15.1 percent and exports down 11.9 percent.
Akiko Oda, a spokeswoman for the authority, said the first quarter had been hit hard by 32 so-called “blank” sailings, when a scheduled port call is canceled because of a lack of freight. But the outlook for April and May shows just seven blank sailings, a big improvement, she said.