BALTIMORE (WJZ) — Baltimore Department of Public Works officials shared residents’ frustrations with trash collection delays in the last few weeks, but have good news.

Employees who were quarantined or off work due to COVID-19 will return Wednesday.

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DPW Acting Director Matt Garbark said he understood residents’ frustrations, saying that having trash go uncollected for multiple weeks at a time is “completely unacceptable,”

“He said they expect to return to as close to normal trash collection as possible in the upcoming week, as many of their sanitation workers from the eastside sanitation yard have now been in full quarantine for at least 14 days.

They said they noticed a spike in cases between May 29 and June 10, with new cases coming in every other day or third day. About three employees were hospitalized, officials said. All have returned from the hospital.

Bureau Head for Solid Waste Director John Chalmers said as more cases started coming in, they did contact tracing, quarantined members the person testing positive was around, but as more came in they decided to shut down the entire operation.

The department officials added that they agreed with City Hall to make testing available to any employee at the yard who wanted it, but they could not be forced to be tested.

They then found out that a number of people had chosen or indicated to them they would be self-isolating- up to 30 people.

“So from a practical standpoint, the operation was not able to function,” Garbark said. “So we decided to cancel operations,”

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Garbark said the workers will be returning to work on Wednesday, adding that they had had other employees from other operations to assist in collecting trash while the employees were quarantined- but that did not come without some issues.

“Trash collection is labor-intensive and employees who do not usually do this type of work are not accustomed to it,” Garbark said. “So it takes them longer to perform the work. The substitute drivers, laborers and supervisors are unfamiliar with the routes they are working on,” citing how each neighborhood is different and must be navigated differently.

He also said their trucks lack GPS capabilities and if someone is unfamiliar with the specific route, it is easier and somewhat more difficult for them to make a wrong turn, miss an alley, or miss another part of the route.

Another factor of the delays was that since the stay-at-home order began, trash tonnage has been up 22 percent and vehicles must stop working once they are full, which can delay the routes as well.

The department has also seen alleys covered in trash, as people dump in the alleys so crews have to go into the area to manually bring the trash to the vehicle before the vehicle can go down the alley.

One solution the department is working toward is to procure a GPS base turn by turn routing software to alleviate these direction issues.

“This is going to be critical, so that we avoid this situation again and could have anyone come in and use these trucks immediately,” Garbark said.

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He also addressed rumors that trash collection has been suspended, saying that was only the case for recycling services. Recycling will be suspended for another week or more, he said.

“We have continued to collect trash and will continue to collect,” he said.

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Chalmers said he has personally been in the field every day for the past two weeks to manage operations and crews and that they had already been dealing with a backlog of trash.

Under Mayor Jack Young’s “Clean It Up” campaign, they had been successful before COVID-19 hit in March.

By March 24, 2020 they went from 14,800 overdue dirty alley street jobs to only 29 overdue backlog of property management jobs which reduced to zero, he said.

But when COVID-19 hit, the services were suspended on March 23 and the backlog started to grow again.

“Had this not occurred, we would’ve been caught up, and the city would have been clean and stayed clean,” Chalmers said.

He said once they catch up with the trash collection they will work to resume recycling collection and other services. He added alleys should be kept clear of bags of trash and bulk items, which only causes more manual work for the collectors.

There are 112 employees returning to work on Wednesday, bringing the Eastern District up and running again.

Chalmers said they will again be providing employees with masks, gloves, hand sanitizers and PPE, and employees will have a laundry service for their uniform so potential contaminants aren’t coming home with them.

When asked about the workers wearing N95 masks, Chalmers said in these workers’ cases it’s not always the best approach saying they could pose health and safety risks if they cannot breathe while outside.

“They’re outside in 85, 95-degree weather, they just cannot do it, so we’re doing the best we can,” he said.

He said when the crews are inside the truck in the cab where they can’t safely socially distance, they have the masks on. However, when they are outside, they can put the face covering on.

Shelonda Stokes of the Downtown Management Authority said they have noticed more people have been dumping their personal trash in trash cans downtown during their daily pickups.

They’re also asking business owners to keep their dumpsters locked, so there is no outside illegal dumping.

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For the latest information on coronavirus go to the Maryland Health Department’s website or call 211. You can find all of WJZ’s coverage on coronavirus in Maryland here.

Annie Rose Ramos