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Vessel and Port Operations in the US and the Port of New York and New Jersey during the Coronavirus Pandemic

April 24, 2020


The Port of New York and New Jersey is one of the busiest ports in the United States, serving one of the biggest metropolitan areas in the World. The coronavirus pandemic had the potential to not only slow down, but to stop local vessel and port operations. However, the port continues to operate. As a follow-up to our previous article, the following is a brief summary of vessel and port operations in the United States and the Port of New York and New Jersey during the coronavirus pandemic.

Nationally, the US Coast Guard publicly addressed the threat of a coronavirus outbreak within the United States in “precautionary” Marine Safety Information Bulletins published on January 24th and February 2nd (these MSIB’s have since been supplemented by or superseded by a series of coronavirus-related MSIB’s). At that time, before the beginning of the outbreak in New York, the US Coast Guard reminded vessel owners and operators of their ongoing duty to report sick and deceased crew and passengers (i.e., “hazardous conditions”) to the US Coast Guard pursuant to 33 CFR 160.206 and to the US Center for Disease Control pursuant to 42 CFR 71.21. The US Coast Guard also reminded local port stakeholders to review their Section 5310 Procedures for Vessel Quarantine and Isolation.  Furthermore, the US Coast Guard encouraged local port stakeholders to work with their local US Coast Guard Captain of the Port to develop plans.

On March 13, 2020, the US Coast Guard’s Captain of the Port of New York and New Jersey, Captain J.P. Tama, published a message addressing the local coronavirus outbreak. Captain Tama urged the port to take the threat seriously, ensure safety and minimize spread by following the US Center for Disease Control’s and the US Coast Guard’s guidance, and work together to maintain the “resiliency of the region’s Marine Transportation System” in one of the nation’s busiest ports.

On April 9, 2020, US Coast Guard Sector New York issued a revised advisory notice concerning “best practices” for local vessel operations during the coronavirus pandemic. Notably, these best practices are intended to be “useful to vessel operators as they develop their own company or vessel-specific COVID-19 risk management procedures.” Although some sectors of the maritime industry are being required by government agencies to develop specific coronavirus-related plans, like cruise ship operators, these “best practices” are not intended to be official US Coast Guard guidance or policy.

These best practices encourage vessel crewmembers to practice social distancing and wear face coverings. Vessel crewmembers are also encouraged to limit time in public spaces (e.g., the navigation bridge if not on watch), regularly and repeatedly wash their hands and sanitize commonly used surfaces (e.g., navigational equipment), and check their temperatures twice per day. Recommendations even include limiting intra-crew interactions by establishing navigational and engine room watch teams without shifting members between teams.

Vessels operators should be aware that, on March 19, 2020, the US Customs and Border Protection’s Field Office in New York published a memorandum stating that crew members arriving in the United States within 14 days from certain restricted countries shall be detained onboard. Moreover, arriving vessels must ensure that prior to arrival they have a proper security plan that includes a guard to deter the absconding of crewmembers during the 14-day period. Facility operators, however, may not restrict crewmembers’ access to vessels unless the crewmember is symptomatic.

Inevitably, vessels will be visited by government authorities, pilots, agents, vendors, and longshoreman when vessels are in port. Only visitors who are essential to vessel operations should be allowed onboard. Most maritime transportation workers including port workers, mariners, and equipment operators have been designated “essential” by the US Department of Homeland Security. Documents and information should nonetheless be exchanged remotely, if possible. For example, the US Coast Guard is “liberally” using remote inspections to verify vessel compliance and is in some cases deferring inspections altogether.

Visitors arriving onboard vessels should not shake hands with crewmembers; rather, they should be asked to wash or sanitize their hands at the embarkation station. They should also be asked prior to boarding if they are experiencing any symptoms and denied access if they answer “yes.” Meetings with visitors should be held outside on deck, if possible, or inside the accommodation within a designated and sanitized area. On April 3, 2020, the Sandy Hook Pilots’ Benevolent Association published a memorandum concerning its own precautionary measures which generally incorporates these best practices.

The coronavirus pandemic will certainly have long-lasting effects on vessel and port operations at the Port of New York and New Jersey and other ports across the US. For example, the US Coast Guard has already published a MSIB concerning coronavirus-related extensions for ballast water management compliance. Merchant Mariner Credentials are also being extended.

Nonetheless, the Port of New York and New Jersey should be applauded for its response to the coronavirus pandemic. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey reports that the port is “open and operating under normal conditions.” It says:

“The Port continues to receive regular container vessel calls, and all truck gates are fully operational during regularly scheduled hours, with minor modifications for interacting with vessel crew and truckers.  There has been no impact to our intermodal rail capabilities, and none is expected at this time.  Our drayage truck partners are operating at full strength and not experiencing any driver shortages. ”

Montgomery McCracken’s Maritime & Transportation Practice Group is experienced in all aspects of vessel and port operations. We are working remotely and remain available to assist you. Please contact Robert O’Connor at roconnor@mmwr.com or +1 (516) 993-4471 if you have any questions or comments.Visit the firm’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Center for more information and updates on this constantly evolving situation.