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Port volumes decline amid pandemic

The Port of Virginia’s March cargo volumes were down nearly 9 percent when compared with last year, according to a Wednesday press release, as the shipping industry continues to grapple with the negative effects on world trade caused by COVID-19.

“As we predicted, the impact on our volume continues, but the good news is that indicators show China’s manufacturing sector gaining strength and the cargo is beginning to flow,” John Reinhart, the chief executive officer and executive director of the Virginia Port Authority, states in the press release. “We knew cargo flows through the spring would be slow and have adjusted our forecasts accordingly.

“The lack of demand driven by COVID-19 has resulted in ocean carriers reducing their network sailings by 20 percent for the second quarter of 2020, and we know our volume will remain weaker during this period. There are still some tough weeks ahead, and we don’t have high expectations for April volume.”

March’s cargo volumes were down nearly 9 percent, or 20,720 twenty-foot equivalent units of cargo, when compared with March 2019, the press release states. Loaded exports were up nearly 1,500 TEUs, or 1.7 percent, and the volume at Richmond Marine Terminal grew by nearly 780 units, or more than 28 percent.

The number of empty containers for export fell for the third consecutive month. In March, empty exports fell nearly 37 percent, or 15,365 TEUs, “as a result of the uncertainty being created by COVID-19,” the press release states.

According to Reinhart, as more Chinese manufacturers restart their operations, the demand for empty export containers will increase.

“One of the effects of this virus on trade is a decreased demand for empty containers,” Reinhart states. “This will change and when it does, it will indicate more production and result in increasing volumes. There is always a normal gap between a restart of manufacturing and receipt of goods, but what we are seeing is the pipeline that brings cargo to the U.S. beginning to be slowly refilled.”

In the meantime, the port is focusing on what it can control, according to Reinhart.

“We’re continuing to swiftly move our customers’ cargo to where it’s needed — including COVID-19 test kits and medical supplies,” he stated. “We have a load of rail-mounted gantry cranes being off-loaded at NIT and the capacity expansion project there is on budget and on schedule. We’re discussing long- and short-term container storage possibilities with our customers and cargo owners to help them manage flows when cargo rebounds. It is our goal to meet their needs and to ensure the efficient movement of cargo when it begins its comeback.”

Additionally, the press release states that the port’s COVID-19 internal task force continues to meet three times a week; a critical cargo program designed to prioritize the movement of COVID-19-related containers (test kits, personal protection equipment, etc.) is fully operational; the port has implemented a temperature screening process for operations-related personnel (labor and non-labor) entering Virginia International Gateway and Norfolk International Terminals; and the port has contracted with a vendor to help sanitize common spaces and equipment.

“It’s still a very unpredictable trade environment and the port team is adapting well,” Reinhart states. “It is important to recognize the hard work and professionalism being shown by the port team, our labor partners at the International Longshoremen’s Association and the motor carriers servicing the port. The dedication of these people is helping to keep the supply chain operating and their work is vital to the national economy. We owe them our thanks.”