Tuesday was a garbage day on Ridgewood Avenue in Glen Ridge, and with the rain falling and the light still dim at 7 a.m., “Big Rob” Wilchard was making the rounds for Suburban Disposal, the town’s solid waste contractor, tossing bags of household trash into the back of his truck.
Wilchard and his partner wore heavy gloves, but not masks. And while they feared the coronavirus, telecommuting is not an option in their business.
“I’m scared to death of it, but when they tell me I got to go to work, I got to go to work,” said Wilchard, 53, who lives in Newark.
Solid waste collection is a public health measure in and of itself, so suspending it like officials have done with some other services amid the coronavirus outbreak is out of the question. And unlike office work, it cannot be done remotely.
So, as with first responders, workers at water supply companies and utilities, and others whose jobs simply have to get done, there’s no choice for sanitation and recycling workers but to carry on — or haul on — and hope that their gloves and common sense will safeguard them against transmission from an unwitting carrier who placed the trash container or recycling bin out on the curb with virus-contaminated hands.
“Doctors got to go do what they do taking care of people, so I guess we got to get this garbage up, otherwise it would be everywhere,” Wilchard said. “Listen, if I don’t get this garbage up and it piles up, man, you’ve probably got more diseases.”
Anthony Roselle, a supervisor at Fairfield-based Suburban, said the company had been combating germs long before the coronavirus outbreak, and apart from wearing gloves, workers knew to wash their hands, use sanitizer and not touch their faces.
“We already know how to keep ourselves clean,” Roselle said. “It’s kind of business as usual.”
Town Councilman Daniel Murphy, who chairs the council’s public works committee, said he was confident the haulers were looking after themselves.
“We’re concerned about them and they’re at the front line,” Murphy said. But, he added, “Right now, we don’t see any issues.”
As for residents, Murphy reminded them to use the same common-sense precautions to prevent the spread of the virus through the waste disposal and recycling processes that they would in other walks of life. Even if a sanitation worker is protected by gloves, that doesn’t mean the virus can’t be picked up from one trash can or recycling bin and planted on another, potentially exposing residents to each other’s contagions.
“It goes without saying that anything they touch could have been touched by a third party, and as such they should be diligent about washing their hands,” Murphy said. “Wash your hands, don’t touch your face.”
While no special precautions are being taken regarding curbside pickups, Glen Ridge joined many other municipalities by adopting restrictions on use of its public parks during a special meeting on the coronavirus Tuesday night, including closing basketball courts to discourage gatherings of people in close proximity.
Apart from the curbside waste pickup that Suburban is contracted for, Glen Ridge Department of Public Works staffers collect trash from receptacles in parks and other public places. Public Works Director William Bartlett said there no changes to the collection process, but that DPW employees were redoubling their usual sanitary precautions like washing their hands frequently and disinfecting surfaces in trucks and work spaces.
“As of now, there has not been a change in operations,” Bartlett said. “I’m sure that is going to be something that we monitor with municipal government.”
Curbside pickups notwithstanding, the coronavirus has disrupted some disposal programs.
For example, Union County announced Tuesday that all countywide recycling days have been canceled during March and April, including mobile paper shredding events, household hazardous waste programs, and scrap metal recycling. A Union County spokesman, Sebastian D’Elia, said those programs were located at a single drop-off point where long lines can form with people waiting to dispose of their items, so the dates were cancelled to avoid any possibility of transmitting the virus.
Back in Glen Ridge, Baldwin Avenue resident Tom McFadden was out walking his dog just as Wilchard and others were making their Tuesday morning pickups. McFadden said the thought had occurred to him while he was setting out his weekly recyclables just how vulnerable the workers who pick them up might be.
“It could be anywhere,” McFadden, 62, said of the virus. “You know, you have your plastic bins and stuff, and you handle them and they handle them. And hopefully, they’re taking precautions.”
Asked about his fellow residents, McFadden said, “People probably don’t think about it.”
Tuesday is recycling day on Tuxedo Road, where veteran waste haulers Mark Lewis and Jahaad McLauria were picking up stacks of flattened cardboard boxes from the curb and throwing them into the back of a big green garbage truck belonging to Basso Rubbish Removal, Glen Ridge’s recycling contractor. The two men were taking the coronavirus scare in stride.
“It’s on my mind, yeah,” said McLauria, who is single and lives in Newark. “But concerned? Worried? Not really.”
Lewis, a father of two from Irvington, said he’s lived through decades of flu seasons and other outbreaks, dodging germs for a living. So the coronavirus wasn’t going to keep him from doing his job. That said, Lewis does draw the line at some point.
“One thing,” he said: “I don’t pick up any tissues.”