What GAO Found
The COVID-19 pandemic caused a shift in U.S. international trade trends. In particular, an initial decline in imports occurred at the pandemic’s onset in March 2020, followed by a steep resurgence several months later. According to CBP officials, this resurgence resulted in part from increased e-commerce shipments, as more consumers shopped from home, and increased demand for products such as masks. These increases contributed to a rise in the cost of shipping goods to the U.S., as charges for shipping containers rose. Importers responded to some of these shifts by transitioning from ocean vessel to air freight because of air freight’s faster shipping times and lower rates.
Numbers of Import Shipments Processed by CBP, May 2018–Dec. 2021
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) took a number of steps to respond to challenges stemming from the pandemic. For example, to minimize staff exposure to COVID-19, the agency implemented social distancing, staggered shifts, allowed telework, and required the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), according to agency officials. To maintain continuity of operations, CBP used workplace flexibilities to mitigate staff absences and adapted inspection procedures to account for increased telework. CBP also took steps, including reducing overtime and nonessential travel, to help address steep declines in revenue from user fees, such as fees for inspections of commercial vessels and trucks at U.S. ports. In addition, the agency created the COVID-19 Cargo Resolution Team to facilitate imports and support the U.S. supply of PPE and other COVID-19-related products.
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