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Residential street sweeping, tree trimming and tree removal could end until Chicago wins coronavirus war

With people stuck at home and the mayor ordering that non-emergency ticketing and towing be curtailed, Streets and Sanitation Commissioner John Tully now may suspend key services coveted by aldermen and their constituents.

A Chicago street sweeper on Wacker Drive.
Street sweeping may be halted in some areas as the city continues to deal with the coronavirus, which has people stuck at home and unlikely to move their car.
Sun-Times file

Tree trimming and removal, along with street sweeping, may be suspended until the city wins the war on the coronavirus — or at least turns the corner, a top mayoral aide said Wednesday.

The Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation could be forced to halt those key housekeeping services, which aldermen and their constituents hold dear, said Streets and Sanitation Commissioner John Tully.

He plans to discuss the potential cutbacks with all 50 aldermen during a conference call on Friday.

He plans to tell the aldermen what he told the Sun-Times on Wednesday: that it’s virtually impossible to continue street sweeping and tree trimming when people are cooped up in their homes, some afraid to leave, and the city has issued orders to suspend ticketing, towing and booting of illegally parked vehicles except when it impacts public safety.

“When we street sweep, we post the street and say, `You need to not park on this side of the street. You need to have your car not there.’ Well, we’re not really towing unless there’s emergencies right now,” Tully said.

“The other thing is, with everyone home, you can’t expect people [to move their cars]. Some people don’t even want to leave their house. So I can’t expect them to go out and move their cars — if they could even find a location. Some areas are so dense, it’s gonna be an impossibility.”

Tully noted arterial streets and other “main thoroughfares” are swept anyway. It’s residential street sweeping that’s likely to be suspended.

“I have to have that discussion. I can’t make that decision unilaterally. I hope to have clarification on that by Friday,” the commissioner said.

Yet another potential target is tree trimming and tree removal.

“We’ll continue to trim trees and remove trees on an emergency basis and where we can, we’ll do some [routine] trimming. But I’m not gonna force people right now to move their vehicles or [give us] cooperation. We’re not pre-posting [no-parking signs] unless it’s an emergency situation,” the commissioner said.

Even under the best of circumstances, it’s not easy running a city department whose other duties include snow removal, garbage collection, graffiti removal and rodent control.

Try doing it during a coronavirus pandemic that has confined most people to their homes, potentially impacting the sheer volume of refuse.

And let’s not forget taking the measures necessary to keep nearly 2,200 employees safe and healthy in a department that, not too long ago, had a double-digit absenteeism rate.

Normally, laborers assigned to refuse collection must sign in at the ward yard, ride vans to the start of their routes and ride those same vans back to the ward yard where they sign out after their shifts.

These are not normal times.

To protect his employees and maintain social distancing, Tully now allows laborers to drive their own vehicles from home to the start of refuse collection routes. When their shifts are over, they are driven back to their vehicles. That means workers avoid congregating at the ward yard and riding in 10-seat vans.

The change is needed to prevent a spike in absenteeism in a department where it once was notorious.

Tully said he simply can’t afford it at a time when the city’s third-largest department is being “asked to do things we don’t typically do.”

“On Saturday, they rounded up laborers that typically wouldn’t be working or they were working somewhere else and we went and set up cots at shelters for the homeless,” Tully said.

“There’s different asks on different days and we try to accommodate and be mindful of anybody that’s showing symptoms. If they don’t feel right, I’m advancing vacation and sick time where it’s requested. If they don’t feel safe or they’ve got a family member, we’re advancing time to them. As far as looking to penalize people for calling in [sick], we’re not looking at that. We’re looking at, better safe than sorry.”

The stay-at-home order means more people are working from home and cooking at home or ordering carry-out instead of eating out. Tully said that will mean more garbage.

“I haven’t seen tonnage really increase that much,” he said. “But I do expect that we’ll see that.”