The inland cruise vessel industry is feeling the effects of the coronavirus emergency: American Cruise Lines is halting cruises until April 5 and the American Queen Steamboat Company is shutting down until April 12.
As for the rest of the transportation industry, the news has been contradictory. The Bank of America Truck Shipper Survey, released March 13, hit an all-time low for truck shippers’ view of near-term demand. The indicator dipped 10 percent from the prior survey, “highlighting the deteriorating demand environment as the COVID-19 virus spread,” Bank of America analyst Ken Hoexter told one business journal.
But later accounts contradicted reports of a trucking shortage and said trucks were moving fine. The Department of Transportation has temporarily suspended rules that limited truck drivers to eight hours a day, so that vital supplies can be delivered more quickly. It can be misleading to rely on fluctuating short-term indicators to gauge the economy’s underlying health, even though social media seems to thrive on short-term panic.
Although we don’t yet know all the ways the virus and the responses to it will affect river commerce, we’re confident that traffic will continue. In this issue, you will read about busy shipyards whose output continues.
Of course, towboat crews (and front offices) are putting into place social-distancing, sanitizing and other safety procedures. Most towboats have separate staterooms for crew members, and few of them have crews of more than 10 people. Towboats have always had a ton-mile advantage over other forms of transport. It takes far fewer people to move a ton of cargo a mile on towboats than on any other form of transport. Those crews also come into close contact with far fewer people than a truck driver, so transporting cargoes by barge is also safer from that point of view.
No one knows how long this crisis will last or the extent of all its effects. In this interconnected world, our industry will probably not remain unscathed. But the importance of keeping river traffic moving will only grow.
A popular meme circulating on the Internet says that in a crisis like this, we are realizing (or rediscovering) that janitors, grocery store clerks and health care workers are more important than politicians and celebrities. We’d like to add towboat crews to that list. It’s a great time to emphasize the importance of river commerce to the economy, and to remind elected officials of its advantages.
Coronavirus stories in the March 23 edition of The Waterways Journal: