As trash piles up around Baltimore, nearly 100 trash collectors will return to work from self-quarantine Wednesday morning, which officials hope will allow the Department of Public Works to catch up on missed routes following a coronavirus outbreak at a city waste yard.
Three of the 15 employees who tested positive for COVID-19 in the department’s Solid Waste Bureau were hospitalized, but all have been released from the hospital, acting director Matthew Garbark said at a news conference Tuesday.
Baltimore halted curbside recycling pickup for three weeks this month, but many trash routes have been missed, too. More than 600 service requests remain open as other employees — including some from other city departments — filled in on unfamiliar routes, officials acknowledged.
Flies buzzed around overflowing garbage cans in the afternoon heat Tuesday in the alleys and on sidewalks near East Madison Street in East Baltimore, where a neighbor said trash piles have been growing, untouched, for two weeks.
“Once we catch up with the trash collection, we can resume recycling collection, along with dirty streets and alley cleaning and property maintenance services,” said John Chalmers, head of the Solid Waste Bureau. “We ask for everyone’s patience as we catch up on delayed work and ask that you work with us.”
The Solid Waste Bureau simultaneously faces a staffing shortage as 135 employees at the Eastern Sanitation Yard self-quarantined after the outbreak, and a 22% increase in curbside trash, likely from people staying home during the pandemic, according to the department.
“This last week has been extremely difficult for everyone involved, but there is a silver lining at the end of that tunnel,” Chalmers said. “The Eastern District will be back up and running tomorrow. If you can’t hear the sigh of relief in my voice, I’m glad that they’re coming back.”
All employees at the Eastern Sanitation Yard were offered COVID-19 tests, their uniforms are being dry-cleaned, and they have been equipped with gloves, masks, sanitizer and best-practices training on staying safe and healthy, Garbark said.
While dump truck drivers have been provided N-95 respirators, the medical-grade masks that protect the wearer from airborne viruses such as COVID-19, the trash collectors who ride the back of the truck and collect the trash have been allowed to wear cloth masks instead in the summer heat, Chalmers said.
“What we’ve put in place is, when the crews are inside the truck, in the cab, where they can’t safely social distance, they have to have their N-95 mask on,” he said. “When they’re outside the truck, they can put the face covering on, and I’m satisfied with that. We don’t want them to pass out.”
AFSCME Council 67, the union that represents trash collectors, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Chalmers praised the workers on leave, several of whom he said offered to come back early.
But the department threatened to fire a separate group of 59 workers who did not report for work after a period of “permission leave,” in which reserve workers received payment but could opt to stay home. The workers returned and none were fired, Garbark and Chalmers said.
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The Department of Public Works first noticed a spike in coronavirus cases during the week of May 29, Garbark said, when it began seeing a startling trend of new ones about every other day. Then, the supervisors began getting it, too.
“It was at that point that it was realized that there is something there,” Garbark said. “Either someone who is asymptomatic [was] coming into contact with people, or there are a number of people who have it who are spreading it. We needed to shut the entire operation down so we could stop the spread of that virus.”
Officials said they are using 311 calls to map which areas have been missed, and they encouraged people to drop off trash and recycling products at three designated sites throughout the city: the Sisson Street Citizen Drop-Off Center at 2840 Sisson St.; the Northwest Transfer Station at 5030 Reisterstown Road; and the Quarantine Road Landfill at 6100 Quarantine Road.
But officials could not provide an update as to which or how many routes have been missed, or when recycling service would resume. Ninety-three of the 135 self-quarantined workers were confirmed to be returning to routes Wednesday, public works spokeswoman Jennifer Combs said.
Baltimore Sun photographer Karl Merton Ferron contributed to this article.