The ports of Savannah and Brunswick are crucial conduits for commerce, handling thousands of trucks each day. But the coronavirus has dampened trade, first imports and now exports. BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM .

Trade through Georgia ports down, quick rebound not seen

Trade through Georgia’s ports fell 18.5% in March compared to the same month a year ago, and several months of rough seas are to come, officials said Wednesday.

The drop so far has been mostly due to ebbing shipments from Asia. Those diminished shipments were because of lockdowns in China earlier in the year ordered by the government to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“It’s really the imports that have been hurt,” said Griffith Lynch, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, which manages the Savannah and Brunswick operations.

After more than a month of decline, those imports from Asia have been picking up as Chinese manufacturing rebounded, he said.

That resurgence meant strong demand for Georgia products like poultry and paper, so exports have been strong.

Last year, the state imported about $19.8 billion in goods from China, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development. Among the goods imported from China are toys, furniture and floor coverings.

But the virus has spread to Europe and the United States, shutting down much of the Western economy and chilling not only production but demand for goods. The ports are bracing for several months more of overall decline, officials said.

“April will probably be down,” Lynch said. “May and June will be worse.”

So far, just a few of the authority’s 1,400 workers have been diagnosed with the virus, “and they’re doing fine,” said Lynch. “These are challenging times. We are hopeful that in a few weeks, we will be on the back side of this and be looking to a bright future.”

However, the World Trade Organization Wednesday cautioned that it is too early to forecast the strength of the eventual post-virus recovery, while the short-term looks grim, according to a statement Wednesday from the group.

“The unavoidable declines in trade and output will have painful consequences for households and businesses,” said Roberto Azevêdo, the WTO director-general, in a statement.

The global trade in goods will fall up to 32% this year because of the pandemic, he said. “These numbers are ugly – there is no getting around that. But a rapid, vigorous rebound is possible.”

About 440,000 jobs – roughly one in every nine in Georgia – are dependent on the ports and the commerce that moves through them, according to a 2017 study by the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business.

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