NWSA focused on keeping commerce moving during pandemic

Terminals at the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, were operating normally Monday, had no confirmed cases of the coronavirus and, for the time being, had enough disinfecting supplies, according to Northwest Seaport Alliance (NWSA) Chief Executive Officer John Wolfe.

“We have no confirmed cases of workers contracting the coronavirus and so it’s business as usual. We have worked with the terminal operators to ensure they have contingency plans in place so that we’re ready to deal with a situation like what was playing out in the Port of Houston,” Wolfe said during a conference call Monday.

Port Houston last week temporarily closed the Bayport and Barbours Cut terminals after an employee who worked at both sites tested positive for COVID-19.

Wolfe was asked about a reported case of the coronavirus at SSA Marine’s Terminal 18 at the Port of Seattle.

“Our understanding was that someone had self-reported. Yet our understanding is there had been no test performed on that worker,” Wolfe said.

According to The Seattle Times, SSA Marine told terminal workers that they may have been exposed to the coronavirus by a mechanic who was last at work March 9. The newspaper quoted an email from SSA Marine as saying that employee “was working alone, repairing a piece of equipment and was only on site for a short period of time. He was not confirmed to have the virus until much later.”

Wolfe said Monday, “Keeping the health and safety of our staff and our workforce and the whole supply chain is paramount to us in terms of our priorities. Also keeping our gateway highly functional is a critical aspect of what we’re focused on today because we need to keep commerce moving to make sure that the goods that are flowing through our gateway get to those in need.”

The NWSA has reached out to state and federal authorities about the need for additional protective equipment and cleaning supplies.

“The supply of cleaning equipment and the other types of safety supplies has been in short supply over the last number of weeks. That said, the good news is the terminal operators have not run out of those supplies, so we have met the needs of the workforce that’s out there day in and day out to make sure their safety and health is a top priority,” Wolfe said. 

“We have reached out to both the federal government as well as state leadership to share with them the challenge that we’re faced with in this gateway, which as I understand it is not a unique challenge to this gateway. It’s a challenge for all of the larger gateways throughout North America to have an adequate supply of those safety supplies,” he said. 

Wolfe said the U.S.-China tariff battle, Lunar New Year and the coronavirus all have negatively impacted volumes at NWSA ports in 2020.

“January container volumes as compared to 2019 were down 19% through our gateway. In February, the year-over-year comparison, we were down 3%. So for the first two months, we were down about 11.5% in terms of total year-over-year volume,” Wolfe said.

NWSA has seen about 30 sailings canceled for the first quarter, Wolfe said.

“I would say that in January and February more of those blanked sailings were related to a combination of the Chinese Lunar New Year and the trade dispute with China. Toward the end of February and into March, it was a combination of those two issues combined with the coronavirus.

“So we felt more of the impact of the coronavirus with blanked sailings in the month of March and there was a higher number of blanked sailings in the month of March than there was in January or February,” he said. “Our forecast canceled sailings for the first quarter of this year, January through March, is approximately 30 vessel calls.”

Wolfe said six voided sailings are forecast for April.  

“You can see by the numbers that we’re moving back to what would be a more normal number of vessel calls within the gateway. And in talking to our customers and what’s happening in China, we believe that the increase of vessel calls to the gateway in April will result in higher volume in the month of April than we’ve experienced in the month of March,” he said.

“If we can assume that is going to continue, then we expect second-quarter volumes to be much stronger than the first quarter,” Wolfe continued. “How that compares to the second quarter of last year is yet to be determined.”