By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Montclair officials say it’s too soon to tell when the township’s recycling pickup suspension will end. The service was abruptly stopped last week due to a COVID-19 outbreak among Department of Public Works employees who have either tested positive or are quarantined due to exposure, officials said.
A bulk waste collection scheduled for Wednesday, Feb. 24, was put off until the following Saturday. But by midafternoon that day the situation looked more dire — through social media updates and robocalls to 22,582 residents, township officials announced the suspension of recycling services indefinitely. Twice-a-week garbage collection would continue.
Ben Rich, Montclair’s Environmental Commission co-chair, took it as an opportunity to visit the township’s recycling drop-off at the Community Services Yard, 219 North Fullerton Ave., for the first time on Saturday. He said it was organized and the workers were helpful. He was also happy to see fellow Montclairians there unloading their recyclables.
“It is an opportunity for residents to realize how important our services are that the township provides,” Rich said. “It also reminds us that COVID is real and still with us.”
The township reached out to four private haulers, and three said they were experiencing staff shortages as well, Mayor Sean Spiller said in his weekly video update to residents. One company gave a “six-figure” quote for one month, Spiller said.
The township also handles recycling for about 60 percent of the smaller businesses in town, which have seen recyclables pile up over the last month due to snow and related pickup postponements. Jason Gleason, executive director of the Montclair Center Business Improvement District, said coronavirus among DPW workers or private haulers is not unique to Montclair, and that the township did a good job of keeping it at bay for so long. The township and BID both tried to connect with private haulers as a fill-in, but were turned down due manpower shortages with those companies as well, he said.
Communications director Katya Wowk would not comment on how many workers were out due to COVID-19, stating it was a human resources issue. She also said it remains to be seen when the suspension would be lifted, adding the town is following CDC quarantine rules.
“Anyone who has contracted COVID-19 must remain out of work for the mandatory isolation period and they must be asymptomatic before returning to work. We hope that our affected workers will be able to return to work promptly after their respective isolation periods end and they are no longer experiencing symptoms,” Wowk said.
CDC guidelines require COVID-19 patients to remain in isolation for 10 days after symptoms first appear, and until they’ve gone 24 hours with no fever.
Workers who came in close contact with affected colleagues must remain in mandatory quarantine for 14 days after their exposure. They can only return to work if they experience no symptoms after those 14 days, Wowk said.
“The above conditions make it difficult to predict when we’ll have sufficient staff to return to the regular collection schedule,” she said. “Our main concern is for the health of our employees and that they may recover very soon.”
Recycling can be dropped off at the Community Services Yard on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
When the suspension was announced, resident Jordan Tassy thought he might make a little money on the side, while helping residents who could not get to the recycling center and who were concerned with recyclables piling up. He posted an open offer to the Facebook group Secret Montclair.
“Fellow Montclairians, I know we were all alarmed and initially puzzled when we heard the news of the halt on recycling pickups,” he wrote. “Recycling being collected every week was a luxury some of us can’t afford to lose. Some of us have children, jobs and other responsibilities that make the transportation of our plastic and paper waste unrealistic. And then what? We’re supposed to settle with just throwing our recycling away with the rest of our waste? I say no!”
He did six pickups on Saturday and had already booked 20 for Wednesday, he told Montclair Local on Monday. Some even offered to pay him another $20 — on top of the $10 fee he is charging — to bag glass and plastic as well.
Last week BID also made use of the recycling yard. BID’s four-man, one-truck Cleaning and Safety Committee was able to finally catch up on the businesses’ recyclable cardboard and get it to the yard.
But others are concerned with the suspension being “indefinite.” Adam Buchanan, in a letter to Montclair Local, called for a tax holiday in lieu of the suspension of services and the continued closure of school buildings — or for township officials to come up with creative solutions.
“I am calling on our elected officials to provide the taxpayers of this town with some much needed relief in light of the reduction in services those taxes fund. And if we can’t get a tax holiday, let’s at least get creative. For example, with regard to recycling pickup, why not move refuse collection to once per week and continue picking up recycling in some capacity? It’s ridiculous that refuse is collected twice per week to begin with,” Buchanan wrote.
Rich said reducing trash to once a week could be an “interesting” idea.
“If anything residents could take the opportunity to learn more about recycling,” he said, adding he hopes people don’t lose the “recycling momentum” the town has built and begin to slip recycling in with garbage.
Some residents say they didn’t get a call and therefore didn’t know about the suspension. On Monday, when recycling would typically be picked up in Area B, hundreds of recycling cans were placed on the curbs.
Over the week of Feb. 22 through March 1, the township counted 63 coronavirus cases among residents. The highest number of new cases came on Friday at 16, with 15 being reported on Sunday.
All other nonessential Department of Community Services operations and activities will be temporarily suspended until further notice to allow all available personnel to assist with refuse collection operations.