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Report: Trade Rebounding At Florida Ports After Pandemic Plunge

Port Tampa Bay

Waterborne trade fell $14.1 billion at Florida seaports last year as the COVID-19 pandemic initially slowed consumer and business demand and caused supply chain problems, according to an industry report released Tuesday.

But Florida port leaders say they have seen cargo trade rebound and see opportunities for growth in what the report describes as the “emerging post-pandemic world.”

Recovery will take longer for the multibillion-dollar passenger cruise industry at the state’s ports, as ships are just now starting to return to sea after being shut down early in the pandemic.

“We knew it was going to hit (cargo) and cruise — obviously with that being shut down — but cargo was, you know, obviously, a little bit of a rude awakening, to see the impact on that,” Florida Ports Council President and CEO Michael Rubin said. “But the good news, again, is that cargo is back up, and it seems to be doing well.”

The report, released by the Florida Seaport Transportation and Economic Development Council, said cargo operations are expected to be completely recovered by the end of this year.

“Most of the declines in 2020 occurred during the first six months of the year at the height of uncertainty surrounding COVID-19,” the report said. “Fall 2020 saw robust recovery in many sectors. 2021 is expected to see a near complete recovery in terms both of cargo volume and cargo value as post-pandemic markets and supply chains regain stability and consumer confidence returns in line with the relaxing of economic constraints.”

Rubin attributed the growth in cargo operations to increased demand for construction materials and people returning to traveling on the roads and by air.

“People are buying stuff, certainly to a level that they were doing it beforehand and whether they have revenue on hand or not,” Rubin said. “But it does appear that those numbers are going to be not only back to pre-pandemic numbers, but maybe exceed that as well.”

The ports council estimated the virus last year caused the loss of about $23 billion in economic activity tied to ports, affecting some 169,000 port-related jobs.

While cargo operations have rebounded, getting back the pre-pandemic growth in the cruise industry in Florida might take “a few years,” the development council report said. But the industry expressed optimism.

“Despite the significant impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on cruise activity worldwide, the fundamentals of the industry remain strong,” the report said, pointing to “the combination of pent-up demand and widespread vaccinations.”

Cruise lines have started to provide limited passenger-paying “revenue runs” as operators determine if evolving federal COVID-19 protocols are working.

Disney Cruise Line has announced plans to resume its Florida cruises on Aug. 9.

Norwegian Cruise Line, engaged in a lawsuit with the state over passenger vaccination requirements, is set to return to sailing in Florida on Aug. 15.

Carnival Cruise Line is booking passengers for voyages out of Florida ports starting the second week of October.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Attorney General Ashley Moody are battling in court against federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cruise-ship restrictions. On Friday, a panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals at least temporarily blocked the CDC restrictions.

“Regardless of what the final rule will be with respect to whether CDC rules or guidelines or suggestions, or whatever they are, the cruise industry is going to (be) up and running, we hope, by September with a number of additional lines moving,” Rubin said. “We were almost at 20 million cruise passengers (a year). Billions of dollars in revenue. A year-and-a-half is crazy. So I know the cruise lines and the state of Florida is ready to get it running.”

The cruise industry shut down in March 2020 after high-profile virus outbreaks aboard ships early in the pandemic. Before the shutdown, the industry accounted for an estimated 158,992 jobs directly in the state.

PortMiami, Port Canaveral, and Port Everglades are the major cruise homeports, with passenger ships operating at Port Tampa Bay, Port of Palm Beach, Port of Key West and Jaxport.

Key West commissioners are expected to consider ordinances next month that would limit local cruise-ship operations. Voters approved such restrictions in a referendum last year, but state lawmakers overturned the restrictions.

The release of the development council’s report, which also outlines planned capital improvement projects over the next five years, comes as port officials await action from the state Department of Transportation on how $250 million in federal stimulus money will be distributed among ports.

According to the report:

  • Florida’s 2020 waterborne trade decreased 16.1% compared to 2019, a drop off of $14.1 billion.
  • South and Central America and the Caribbean remained the top regions for trade with Florida ports.
  • Japan topped China for the second year as the top import trade country for Florida ports.
  • Not all seaports experienced declines in 2020, as containerized cargo volume increased 54.5% from 2019 at Port Manatee, 49.9% at Port Tampa Bay and 33.5% at Port Panama City.

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Jim Turner - News Service of Florida