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As COVID-19 Grips Country, Maritime Industry Keeps Moving With Precautions

March 20, 2020   Waterways Journal

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In little more than a week, COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has brought much of daily life in the United States to a halt as communities and government officials struggle to “flatten the curve” of infection.

On the nation’s waterways and at shoreside ports and terminals, though, there’s no such standstill as yet, while companies, under guidance from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and industry associations, put systems in place to prevent or minimize the spread of the coronavirus among their ranks.

The Coast Guard is requiring commercial vessel crews to immediately notify the nearest Captain of the Port if a person onboard a vessel exhibits cold- or flu-like symptoms “regardless of where they have been or who they have interacted with,” according to Marine Safety Information Bulletin (MSIB) 02-20 (Change 3). That MSIB, among other points, instructs industry stakeholders to review procedures for vessel quarantine and isolation. Separate MSIBs (06-20 and 07-20) overview further instructions for vessel reporting of illness or death on board and COVID-19 impacts on port and facility operations, respectively.

The American Waterways Operators (AWO) has released extensive guidelines for towing vessel operators for limiting interactions between shoreside and vessel crews, for cleaning vessels and for identifying signs and symptoms of the disease.

“I know companies are individually preparing those company contingency plans along with some of the guidance AWO and CDC has put out,” said Jim Stark, president of the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association. “What will be key is getting consistent guidance and policy from the Coast Guard for if you do have an infected person on board.”

Stark said his association’s members so far are focusing on limiting social interactions during crew changes and emphasizing sanitation aboard towing vessels to minimize the spread of germs.

“A lot of our members are reporting it’s harder to get supplies, including the kinds of supplies you would want to decontaminate surfaces and keep the crew safe, like gloves and Clorox,” Stark said. “Normal food supplies to keep the boat going are also getting harder and harder to get. A lot of the suppliers are running short, just as the grocery stores are.”

Stark said, from what he’s heard so far, virus mitigation has not yet hampered cargo deliveries.

“Tows are still out there on the Intracoastal Waterway, making their way through the system,” Stark said. “But there certainly could be impacts downstream if the crews are affected on a larger scale.”

AWO Webinar

AWO hosted an industrywide webinar March 19, which featured a panel of industry leaders who discussed steps their companies have taken to combat spread of the disease. The panel consisted of Ketra Anderson from Crowley Maritime Corporation, Marino Hwang of McAllister Towing, Patrick Smith from American Commercial Barge Line (ACBL), and AWO’s Caitlyn Stewart.

Stewart highlighted AWO’s request to the Coast Guard to suspend in-person inspections and delay audit due dates in an effort at “social distancing.” She said AWO is also working to ensure maritime companies, along with ports and terminals and shipyards, are exempt from any future or existing curfews or shelter-in-place orders and are recognized as “level one critical infrastructure.”

The three industry companies represented on the panel have taken steps to limit crews from going ashore, to step up cleaning and decontamination practices, and to deliver supplies so that crew members can avoid interacting with the general public. Some companies have also instituted regular temperature checks, both onshore and on vessels. Other companies are stocking vessels with surgical masks in case a crew member begins to exhibit symptoms of the novel coronavirus.

Smith said ACBL has suspended all audits and surveys, again, in an attempt to minimize social interactions. Smith also noted that ACBL has “some surge capacity” should individual vessels need to be quarantined due to crew members falling ill.

Other Preparations

Other vessel representatives, speaking anonymously, outlined the following ways they are preparing for disruptions due to COVID-19:

• One mariner reported stocking a significant supply of rice and beans in case of food shortage.

• One vessel reported holding crew change meetings outside rather than in an enclosed meeting room.

• Crews are also sterilizing high-touch surfaces like door handles, refrigerators and handrails on each watch.

• Some companies are reportedly asking one person from each department to work remotely for a week at a time, then rotating personnel, to help ensure continuity in case of infection.

Many companies are suspending using airplanes, buses and rental cars during crew changes.

“It’s been an all-out effort to try our best to stay ahead of the epidemic,” said Florida Marine’s Norm Antrainer.

Antrainer added that Florida Marine team members have been asked to postpone any long-distance trips, and the company is preparing an emergency off-site plan of operation “if need be.”

“We limited entry into the facilities to a one-way in and out with entry screening in place,” Antrainer said. “We have asked vendors to not visit at this time, try and keep correspondence to emails and telephone [rather than] a social visit.”

Two shipyards reported minor supply chain disruptions attributable to factory shutdowns in China, but so far production has not been impacted, they said.

On the federal side, agencies are taking action to avoid spread of the disease as well, while also working to ensure seamless operations. Vic Landry, who oversees navigation structures on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway for the New Orleans Engineer District, noted that social distancing is an inherent part of a lock operator’s job description.

“They’re pretty much remote workers, and they’re not interacting with the public, other than their interactions outside the workplace,” Landry said. “Work is probably the safest place they can be. Lock operators don’t touch people or get close to people. Lock mechanics, lock masters—it’s a pretty good situation as far as staying healthy. As long as people stay healthy, we can maintain our operations.”

Speaking to the possibility of COVID-19 spreading through the ranks of lock operators, Landry said, “It could be a challenge, but so far so good.”

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