How has the coronavirus affected the US West Coast?

Silhouette of container cranes at sunset at the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach.

Ports in the US have been substantially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the West coast gateways to China, but it appears the worst could be over as economic data suggests some of the country’s main hubs are recovering, albeit slowly.  

While there is still economic uncertainty across the US, attributable to the rapidly increasing rate of coronavirus infections and deaths its biggest ports are beginning to see the first uptick in volume since the beginning of the year. 

How badly did the pandemic affect the US West Coast? 

The worst hit ports were those with direct exposure to China – Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two biggest in the country, and Oakland, all of which are major thoroughfares of US-China trade.  

These ports were already in a state of uncertainty due to the US-China trade war, which by the start of 2020 had been waging for almost three years and had cost hundreds of billions in tariffs and lost revenue.  

The outbreak of COVID-19 in late 2019 caused a slowdown in factory output and, subsequently, a spike in blank sailings from China. This in turn resulted in Los Angeles and Long Beach suffering year-on-year drops of 5.4% and 4.6% respectively in January.  

February was much worse and saw the two ports suffer dips of 22.9% (Los Angeles) and 9.8% (Long Beach) as trade plummeted.  

Los Angeles has continued to see its traffic fall in the first half of 2020 and recorded another year-on-year drop of 29.8% in May, the slowest May it has had since 2009. Overall cargo dropped by 18.7% year-on-year in the first five months.  

In that same month, the Port of Oakland also saw its volume decrease 12.7% year-on-year as it also suffered from the effects of the pandemic. The consequences have been so severe that the port has cut its 2020/2021 budget by 15.8% to limit the pandemic’s long-term impact.  

These ports have not been alone in suffering from the impact of the pandemic, as hubs in every continent and major country on Earth has seen traffic fall and congestion rise. UNCTAD predicted in June 2020 predicted a drop of 20% in global trade this year.  

Which ports have recovered? 

Despite the early slump at the beginning of 2020, recent events suggest the West Coast ports may be recovering. In May 2020, Long Beach saw its first increase in cargo shipments of 2020 and went so far as to claim that the effects of the pandemic were beginning to subside.  

In June 2020, it also announced that three of its terminals had broken ship-to-shore (STS) records, following on from its own cargo movement record, which it broke on 11 June. In doing so it broke the North American record for container moves when 30,744 TEU were moved from and on the MSC Sveva at Pier T.  

However, the pandemic continues to have a substantially negative effect and signs of a recovery, when considered as part of a wider macro-economic struggle that includes the trade war, should be viewed with caution. Despite that, Long Beach’s STS achievements does show that the West Coast has the capacity to recover and handle the biggest ships in the world.  

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