On the George Town waterfront, mornings are far different than they were a year ago. Cruise ship tourists no longer bustle through the port, deboarding ships and transferring to tour shuttles, en route to explore the island.
But the harbour remains busy in other ways. In the absence of cruise traffic, cargo ships now take advantage of the previously impossible opportunity to unload cement and construction aggregate during the day. The ability to offload such items during daylight hours, in contrast to the previous nighttime schedule, has been a boon for the construction industry, a primary sector driving the islands’ economic recovery.
It’s one of the silver linings of Cayman’s ongoing border closure, explained Acting Port Director Joseph Woods.
When the islands shut down in March, port workers entered an extended period of increased demands and uncertainty that required attention 24 hours a day.
“A lot of staff were apprehensive and scared because nobody knew what COVID would do,” Woods said.
On the other side of the lockdown, Woods reflects on the positives.
The port was able to avoid interruptions to cargo by adapting to restrictions imposed during lockdown, Woods said. When warehouses filled, he said exemptions were issued to importers to allow them to clear cargo and store it elsewhere.
Additionally, no one in the Port Authority team tested positive for the novel coronavirus, a feat he attributes to the robust health and sanitary protocol established in collaboration with Public Health.
Even now at the port’s offices, sanitation workers stay busy, cleaning frequently touched areas, like doors and partitions.
And then there are other positives, like the ability to support industry with the, albeit temporary, streamlining of certain construction imports.
“We’re working right around the clock,” Woods said, standing in the port off of Harbour Drive.
In the foreground, the ICS Triton of Inter Caribbean Shipping Ltd. nears the south pier with 2,998 tons of construction aggregate on board.
Under previous port protocol, the ICS Triton crew would have waited until nightfall to drop off their cargo. Daytime hours were reserved for cruise ships.
The crew still remain aboard the ship as a safety measure to avoid the spread of COVID-19. But on the ground, Cayman’s port staff are ready to assist.
Many of the fears of the early days of the crisis have now dissipated for port workers. Concern that imported goods could carry the virus, for example, is now gone.
“Once we understood the survivability of the virus, we knew it couldn’t survive for long in the conditions, in the heat and stuff,” he said.
So far, in terms of keeping staff and the community safe, the sanitary measures implemented by the port have worked.
Port protocol and upgrades
Back at the billing office on Portland Road, employees receive and file paperwork electronically. A colour-coding system alerts when a step in the import process has been completed and items can move forward to the next department.
Much of the system, including client accounts and payments, is now digital, cutting down on the need for in-person services.
The port employs around 160 workers, many of whom have stayed with the job for decades. New hires, however, are learning the ropes from the old-timers, Woods said, so they’re ready to take the reins when the time comes.
While certain port projects have been put on hold due to the crisis, others remain in motion at the port’s storage yard, just south of the billing office.
“We started off the year pretty fast; the first three months this year, we made $2 million profit. We were looking good and we were steaming ahead,” Woods said.
“We had some good plans. And we had to reduce them.”
More-urgent projects, like installation of refrigerated storage towers in George Town, however, have still moved forward.
Improvements have also been made to the pier in Cayman Brac and, for the first time, refrigerated goods can be stored at the port facility in Little Cayman.
“In Little Cayman, whenever the refrigerated containers came off, people had to be there and take stuff because there was no plugging them in,” Woods said.
Now, residents in Little Cayman will have more flexibility with picking up their refrigerated goods.
Throughout the crisis, Woods said his staff has stayed committed to processing all imports within five days, with many goods being cleared within two days. The delays and stresses associated with courier mail services, like FedEx and DHL, are not related to the shipping port.
Before returning to his desk, Woods stops to thank employees at the Portland Road office for the sacrifices they made to see the islands through the crisis.
“Everybody was scared of it and what could happen,” Woods told them.
“But yet, you guys stuck with us and brought the goods in, got it to customers so Cayman could eat. It was much appreciated.”