COVID-19 Freight Update: US ports, warehouses stay open

As the impact of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) deepens in the United States, major ports, warehouses, and freight transportation providers are telling customers they will remain open as they are deemed essential services by the government. 

Essential staff supporting the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, including longshore workers and drayage drivers, for example, are exempt from California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Thursday “shelter-in-place” order.  

The Southern California ports issued statements on Friday emphasizing that because they handle a wide range of critical cargoes from medical supplies to basic consumer staples, both the state and county of Los Angeles regulators have exempted port and supply chain activities from stay-at-home mandates.

Noel Hacegaba, deputy executive director and chief operating officer at the Port of Long Beach, said the ports have lobbied the county and state on behalf of all supply chain participants.

“Specifically, we have requested that ports be classified as essential infrastructure and businesses that are part of the end-to-end supply chain be classified as essential operations in order to ensure full benefit to the economy,” Hacegaba said.

Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, said that with 12 container terminals and extensive container yard acreage, the neighboring ports are able to remain “nimble” and shift freight volume around throughout the largest US port complex as needed.

For example, vessel-sharing alliances call at multiple terminals in the port complex, so the terminals are able to handle cargo surges by sharing the load. Also, the ports and terminals will be able to respond to interruptions due to health emergencies, such as a worker testing positive for COVID-19, as happened Thursday in Houston. 

Seroka said the ports have met with the chief medical advisor for Los Angeles County and developed a safety protocol and a contingency plan in the event of an emergency.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents shipping lines and terminal operators, have worked out their own safety protocol, which includes social distancing and a greater reliance on electronic dispatching when possible, said James McKenna, PMA president. 

The Harbor Trucking Association (HTA) in Southern California on Friday emphasized the exemption that the supply chain logistics industry has from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order.

“By order of the governor, port operations, manufacturing and distribution are considered critical and essential, as part of America’s supply chain, which must continue,” the HTA stated.

The HTA’s daily update on the COVID-19 disruption on Thursday listed the broad range of industry workers who will continue to work in the current environment. 

“Employees supporting or enabling transportation functions, including dispatchers, maintenance and repair technicians, warehouse workers, truck stop and rest area workers, and workers that maintain and inspect infrastructure, including those that require cross-border travel,” the HTA said.

In a Friday statement, the Port of Oakland reaffirmed its status as a provider of essential services, and ILWU Local 10 tweeted it will would be taking safety precautions while it continued to move cargo through the port. 

East, Gulf coasts ports adjust 

Similar to California, the Port of Charleston in South Carolina is exempt from a stay-at-home order issued Thursday by the mayor of Mount Pleasant, where the Wando Welch Terminal is located. All terminal staff, truck drivers, and workers at nearby off-dock rail ramps are considered essential employees, as are warehouse workers handling cargo.

The ports of Virginia, Wilmington (N.C.), Charleston, Jacksonville, and Everglades are open normal hours. In Savannah, terminal hours remain the same Monday through Friday, but Saturday gate hours have been canceled through mid-April.

In New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy on Friday said he is looking at closing non-essential businesses in the state, to halt the spread of COVID-19. However, as in other states, port workers likely will not be affected.

The closure of the Port of Houston on Wednesday night after the port administration learned that a part-time truck driver who worked at the port’s two main container terminals — Barbours Cut Container Terminal and Bayport Container Terminal — had tested positive for COVID-19 highlighted the difficulty of ensuring infected employees do not come to work. The terminals reopened Thursday evening after the port authority said an investigation determined the truck driver’s exposure to others “was fairly limited.” 

Ensuring that infected employees don’t come to work is no easy task, however. In Houston, for example, the employee only learned he tested positive several days after he had worked at the terminals.

The Seagirt Marine Terminal in Baltimore has closed twice this month because of lack of volume. Miami’s South Florida Container Terminal was closed Friday and the Port Miami Terminal Operating Co. will be closed Monday and Tuesday also because of low volume.

Longshore labor’s safety procedures 

On the East and Gulf coasts, rules compiled by the joint safety committee of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) and the United States Maritime Alliance (USMX) prohibit a worker who is sick from COVID-19 from entering the workplace.

“In the case of a worker showing up with symptoms, we follow the CDC guidelines. Send them home,” John Nardi, president of the New York Shipping Association, told

That presumes the employer and employee are aware of the symptoms, however, which in the Houston incident was not the case. With this in mind, members of Local 1416 of the ILA in the Port of Miami began having their temperature taken each day as they show up for work, said ILA spokesperson Jim McNamara. The aim is to flag those with an elevated temperature, which could suggest they have been infected by the COVID-19 virus.

Measures have also been taken to introduce social distancing into union hiring halls, where the assembly of tens or hundreds of employees looking to find out whether they are going to be hired for the day could spread COVID-19, according to an industry executive who is familiar with the ILA and USMX safety procedures. Most ports on the East and Gulf coasts use hiring halls, except for the Port of New York and New Jersey, where longshore workers get their orders from a hiring center in Edison, New Jersey, via telephone or direct from a marine terminal.

Some hiring halls have modified their practices by requiring longshore workers to gather outside the hall, where there is more fresh air, the executive said. They also have expedited the hiring process so casuals spend less time next to other employees, preventing longshore workers from hanging around in the hall once the hiring is over, as they used to in the past, the executive said.

The Association of Bi-State Motor Carriers, the largest trucker group in New York-New Jersey, said the marine terminal operators and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey have implemented a variety of changes that contribute to trucker safety from COVID-19 in the terminals. These include regular cleaning and sanitizing of pedestals and handsets that truckers use to communicate with clerks, limiting face-to-face interaction between drivers and clerks, and handling issues with paperwork over the phone, the association said in a message to members.

“Drivers are not allowed to congregate in numbers at any terminal areas, and must remain in their trucks as much as possible,” the message stated.

Editor’s Note: The impact COVID-19 is having on ports and other freight stakeholders is a developing story. Check back here for regular updates.