April 15, 2020

Newark’s public works crews are unheralded soldiers of the COVID-19 frontlines

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They gather each morning at 6 a.m. just as the City is coming alive. The sanitation army of about 200 men and women put hi-visibility vests over their blue uniforms and hop aboard the City fleet of white garbage and recycling trucks.

These days, in the midst, of the COVID-19 crisis, they have two other pieces of mandatory equipment: latex gloves and protective facemasks, handed out by supervisors each morning. The workers line up for the protective gear, maintaining proper social distance, before hitting the streets to keep the City clean.

“We can’t let the coronavirus stop us from doing our jobs,” said Khalif Thomas, the director of the Newark’s Department of Public Works. “Our people are out there every day, working, trying to keep the City clean. They are on the frontlines.”

The roar of diesel engines and groaning whir of the truck compactors as the trucks rumble through Newark’s neighborhoods can actually be reassuring to people sheltered-in-place that some things, like trash collection, remain reliably normal.

“I just came from a community meeting and people are definitely happy the trash collection hasn’t stopped,” said Andrea Mason, the senior manager of the Newark People’s Assembly. “I know when I hear the recycling trucks early in the morning, it is reassuring to me that the service is still being provided.”

Director Thomas said his workers are taking many of the same risks as other “essential workers” by being out in public to do their jobs.

“These workers deserve special thanks,” Director Thomas said. “It’s very hard to keep the city clean during this pandemic, and I’m very proud of their commitment and dedication. I think the whole City is grateful that they are willing to get up every day and serve the residents.”

Director Thomas said there is an added element of trash collection during the pandemic, and that is the volume of discarded masks and gloves that need to be picked off the street.

“People just throw these things on the ground and we have to clean them up,” he said.  “If we don’t, they’ll collect in the pipes and clog things up. I’d like to get the message out that people need to properly dispose of these things instead of littering them on the ground.

While sanitation crews remain very visible around the City, there is a major, unknown part of the department’s role in keeping the City safe.

When the shortage of masks, gloves and sanitizers became critical and news reports said the country were desperate to find these supplies, Director Thomas was able to provide Newark health care workers, police, other frontline and his own workers with the needed safety gear.

“Our janitorial supply company had what we needed so we bought it all,” Director Thomas said. “We supplied the health department and police with thousands of masks and gloves.”

The numbers are enormous. Director Thomas said he bought 200,000 pairs of latex gloves, 5,000 masks and 10,000 bottles of sanitizer. Another 7,500 masks were donated to the City and he is expecting a delivery of 10,000 face shields on Friday.

“We have to do everything we can to keep our people safe,” he said, “and the people they come in contact with safe, too.”

- Newark News