An usually high number of container ships are dotting the Long Beach coastline—sometimes waiting up to five days to dock—due to a perfect storm of record cargo numbers, the coming Chinese New Year and limited capacity at warehouses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said Friday.
Despite a slowdown at the beginning of 2020 as the pandemic hit, the Port of Long Beach last year saw its busiest year on record, moving more than 8.1 million cargo container units, up 6.3% from 2019.
Consumer goods largely fueled the second half of 2020 as demand rose for medical supplies and home improvement items, like exercise equipment and office furniture, as more people worked from home in the pandemic.
Overall, December marked the busiest month in Port of Long Beach’s 110-year history as trade jumped 23% thanks to a holiday season surge and a rush of ships making up for voyages that were canceled earlier in the year.
But the record numbers have resulted in a massive backup at both the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles as ships sit off the coastline waiting for days to unload. Over the past two months, an average of about two dozen ships were waiting to get into the ports, said Noel Hacegaba, deputy executive director for the Port of Long Beach.
On Friday, about 30 ships were anchored off the Long Beach coast as a thick brown haze lined the horizon.
“They don’t normally have to wait, but demand in America is through the roof,” he said.
Hacegaba said three main factors are causing the mass backup. First, the ports typically see a rush in January as ships try to get in goods before the Chinese New Year, when the region shuts down for two weeks. Chinese New Year kicks off Feb. 12.
Second, warehouses are limiting capacity and workers due to COVID-19 safety protocols, which further slows the supply chain. And third, consumer spending is up in the pandemic, with more people shopping online and driving imports from China.
“The supply and demand forces are at work,” Hacegaba said.
Port officials expect the backup to subside by late February or March, but the demand for consumer home goods will likely last through the summer, he said.
Executive Director Mario Cordero in a statement said the volume is putting a strain on “frontline dockworkers, terminal operators, truck drivers and other essential personnel” who are moving record amounts of cargo while facing the risk of contracting COVID-19.
Dockworkers are currently on the state’s schedule to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in March, but they are now lobbying to be given higher priority as essential workers.
“This country’s waterfront workforce needs to be moved ahead in the line for the COVID-19 vaccine,” Cordero said in a statement. “The vaccine needs to be made available to these essential workers immediately; they have kept this country’s supply chain functioning since Day One of the pandemic, and they are at high risk.”