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Port of Baltimore reducing hours due to ‘significant and unprecedented’ shipping disruptions from coronavirus

The port of Baltimore's Seagirt Marine Terminal is reducing its hours due to declines in incoming cargo due to the international coronavirus outbreak.
The port of Baltimore's Seagirt Marine Terminal is reducing its hours due to declines in incoming cargo due to the international coronavirus outbreak. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

The port of Baltimore’s booming container terminal will reduce its operating hours next week because of declines in incoming cargo due to the international coronavirus outbreak, officials said Friday.

Seagirt Marine Terminal will open at 7 a.m., and the inbound gate will close at 4:45 p.m. beginning Sunday, according to Ports America Chesapeake, the company that operates the state-owned terminal under a 50-year agreement. That schedule cuts an hour and 15 minutes from the typical port workday.

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“Our hope is these actions are short lived, but the disruptions in the global supply chain as a result of the Coronavirus outbreak are significant and unprecedented,” the company said in a memo Thursday to port stakeholders obtained Friday by The Baltimore Sun.

Three more Marylanders are being tested for COVID-19, the coronavirus disease that has sickened more than 80,000 people globally, state officials confirmed this week. Two previously tested negative for the virus.

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The Maryland Port Administration has not provided an estimate of how much the global outbreak will affect the port of Baltimore’s cargo volumes.

Volumes at many U.S. ports could drop 20% or more in the first three months of the year, according to the American Association of Port Authorities, which represents 130 of the top ports in the U.S., Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Ports in Georgia, which handle nearly $20 billion in Chinese imports each year, expect to see shipments drop by as much as 40% in March and April, according to that state’s projections.

“While the global economic impacts to the port and maritime industry from the coronavirus outbreak are significant and growing, the human impacts are our greatest concern," Chris Connor, the association’s president and CEO, said in a statement. “The most important things are to ensure that as few people as possible become infected, that those who have been infected are well treated and receive quality care, and that we mourn for those whose lives have been tragically cut short by this pathogen crisis.”

The limited hours at the Baltimore container terminal are a result of “a reduction in volumes from disruptions in the global supply chain,” the port administration said in a statement. The agency noted that the hours reduction is scheduled to go into effect only at Seagirt and not at the other five public marine terminals.

“We will continue to monitor the situation and adjust terminal hours as conditions change,” Ports America Chesapeake’s memo said. “Thank you for your understanding during this international event.”

Dockworkers could face fewer hours and smaller paychecks as a result of the slowdown, said Scott Cowan, president of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 333.

“It will affect the amount of hours they get, and their earning potential,” Cowan said.

Cowan said he’s told his 1,650 members the cutback in hours could last a few months.

“This is something no one has control over,” he said. “But I don’t think this is a long-term problem. I think it will bounce back.”

The reduction in hours at Seagirt comes as ports around the country have been grappling with spikes in container volume because of shippers importing goods early to beat U.S. tariff deadlines, which have been postponed until April from an original Jan. 1 deadline.

Ports America had extended the terminal’s daily gate hours and offered extra weekend hours earlier this month to address the congestion.

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The supply chain disruption also follows several years of cargo records at the container terminal. The Port of Baltimore handled a record 43.6 million tons of cargo last year.

The port’s cruise operators are also taking coronavirus precautions.

Passengers bound for the Bahamas or elsewhere from Baltimore’s cruise terminal will be screened for the virus, and the cruise lines won’t allow boarding to anyone who has visited areas affected by the coronavirus or who has come into contact with others who have been to those areas in the past two weeks, officials said Thursday.

After The Baltimore Sun contacted Ports America with questions about the coronavirus memo, the company posted the memo about the reduced hours on its website — without any reference to the coronavirus.

“Ports America Chesapeake’s announcement [on Thursday] was simply to advise the trucking community of reduced operating hours,” company spokeswoman Jeanne Futuyma said in an brief emailed statement.

She did not explain why references to the coronavirus were removed in the version posted online.

“We will not be providing additional information,” she said in an email response to follow-up questions.

Baltimore Sun reporters Alison Knezevich, Meredith Cohn, Kevin Rector and Jean Marbella contributed to this article.

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