Cruising for a bruising

By Patrick Burnson, Executive Editor · March 27, 2020

Unlike many major U.S. ocean cargo gateways, the Port of Oakland has not succumbed to the temptation of diversifying its operations to accommodate the global cruise industry. This has always been a working port, and up until recently, had never even hosted a guest mega cruise ship into its harbor.

All that changed rather dramatically last month as the Grand Princess—enrouteto the Port of San Francisco—was diverted across the bay when COVID-19 was discovered to have infected many of its passengers.

After being guided into Oakland by The San Francisco Bar Pilots with a U.S. Coast Guard escort, 2,400 passengers and 500 crewmembers exited the ship during its stay once it was docked. They all underwent medical checks for COVID-19 as they departed, and if no sign of the disease was found then they were allowed to depart to quarantines

According to spokesmen, the Americans were then spread out over four military bases— including Travis Air Force Base—for federally mandated 14-day secure quarantines. Foreign travelers were flown by charter flights to their native countries.

The Bay Area maritime community was properly impressed by the performance of the Bar Pilots taking charge of this unusual navigational challenge. Equally impressive was the close collaboration demonstrated byThe International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) during this crisis.

Throughout this pandemic, the labor and terminal management has been working cooperatively and maintaining close communication with the relevant federal, state and local government agencies as this situation continues to unfold. This includes the United States Coast Guard, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, local port authorities and city governments.

California’s two mega-ports, meanwhile, also demonstrated their resilience.

Soon after the epidemic was announced, the Port of Long Beach marine terminals were reopened and operating amid the unfolding health crisis, with regular vessel calls and scheduled work shifts continuing at the nation’s second-busiest seaport.

Today, marine terminals are still receiving vessel calls and workers are transferring cargo off and on ships under the health-protective directives established by the U.S. Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection, with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Like Long Beach,the Port of Los Angeles had been reporting disappointing container throughput numbers even before the coronavirus struck, but leadership here has been impressive.

“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,” said Gene Seroka, Port of Los Angeles executive director. “We’re more interconnected than ever with our global partners so it’s no surprise that trans-Pacific maritime trade has been significantly impacted.”

As factory production in China remains at low levels, all three California ports expect soft volumes in April, and perhaps beyond. But looking ahead to anticipated manufacturing improvements, they will need to return empty containers to Asia and push lingering U.S. export boxes out swiftly.

“We’re actively working with our supply chain partners to be prepared for a cargo surge once production levels ramp up,” add Seroka.

However, it’s worth noting that the international passenger cruise industry has been particularly quiet about restoring scheduled calls to any of our nation’s great ports. Could COVID-19 be the final nail in the coffin?

March 27, 2020