On a tree-lined block of Eltingville, Staten Island, no one has picked up the trash in over a week. But even as raccoons rummage through the growing pile of bags, Juan Cuautle, a nonprofit worker who moved to the block four years ago, feels as though he is alone in worrying about the breakdown in city services.

“Most of my neighbors work for the city, and they’re supporting the sanitation workers,” said Cuautle. “But if this continues, the situation is going to be unbearable.

The heaps of uncollected trash may be the most visible sign of a small but potent protest against the city’s expanded COVID-19 vaccine mandate for municipal employees. Nowhere is that escalating trash stand-off more apparent — and more supported — than on Staten Island.

Protesters outside a sanitation facility on Staten Island, blocking trucks

People protest New York City's municipal workforce vaccine mandate on Staten Island, November 1, 2021

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People protest New York City's municipal workforce vaccine mandate on Staten Island, November 1, 2021
Alex Kent / Gothamist

“Staten Island is still the only borough holding strong,” Daniel Presti, a local bar owner best known for defying the city’s vaccine mandate for restaurants, told a crowd gathered outside one of the borough’s sanitation garages on Monday. “These are the guys holding the line and blocking the trucks from getting out there.”

A few hours later, police issued Presti and three others summonses for attempting to block sanitation trucks from leaving the facility. The action capped off a day-long rally at the garage, where municipal employees, many of them proudly unvaccinated and now ineligible to work, vowed to bring city services to a halt if the mandate is not reversed.

“It’s going to get bad in the streets,” warned Wendell, a sanitation worker, who requested a medical exemption. “The garbage is going to pile up. We already have enough manpower problems.”

Protesters outside a sanitation facility on Staten Island, blocking trucks

People protest New York City's municipal workforce vaccine mandate on Staten Island, November 1, 2021

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People protest New York City's municipal workforce vaccine mandate on Staten Island, November 1, 2021
Alex Kent / Gothamist

De Blasio has dismissed such threats, pointing to the 92% compliance rate among city workers. He announced the vaccine mandate on October 20th, removing a weekly testing option and offering a $500 incentive for the jabs.

Nine thousand people, a small fraction of the city’s workforce, were placed on unpaid leave Monday, while another 12,000 have applied for religious or medical exemptions that could take days to weeks to review, according to the mayor. But his claim that there has been no interruption to trash pick-up is contradicted by the city’s own 311 data.

Between October 24th and October 30th, complaints about trash increased by a factor of ten from the previous month. Despite being the least populous borough, Staten Island leads the city in complaints for missed pick-ups, clocking more than 5,000 over the span of a week. Over the same time period, Manhattan recorded fewer than 500 complaints. The zip codes encompassing Eltingville went from a couple dozen complaints at the start of October to more than 1,200 last week.

Multiple workers said that their bosses at the Department of Sanitation were focused on avoiding a trash crisis in Manhattan, knowing full well that those rank-and-file workers exert enormous power on Staten Island.

“These guys run this island. They really do,” said Brian, a sanitation worker who asked for his last name to not be published for fear of professional consequences. “They’re not afraid of getting written up, they’re not afraid of backlash.”

Since the mandate went into effect, employees said they have received substantial bonuses in exchange for helping to cover routes that have not received trash pick-ups. But even then, some sanitation workers said they were still intent on sending a message to the city.

“You leave stuff out, you leave stuff out,” added Brian, who said he was vaccinated but supported the protest. “I’m sure the job didn’t get done to the city’s satisfaction today.”

Protesters outside a sanitation facility on Staten Island, blocking trucks

People protest New York City's municipal workforce vaccine mandate on Staten Island, November 1, 2021

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People protest New York City's municipal workforce vaccine mandate on Staten Island, November 1, 2021
Alex Kent / Gothamist

Despite bearing the brunt of the protest, many Staten Island residents said they would continue to support the sanitation workers. Some have placed signs outside urging sanitation workers to leave the garbage behind, according to Councilman Joe Borelli, a Republican who represents the borough.

“There’s no question people are upset their garbage is not being picked up. But I’d say there’s also support for the people not picking up,” Borelli said. “We’re a place that really does care about our city workers. The anger is aimed at the mayor.”

The conservative-leaning borough has long been an outlier from the rest of New York City, where vaccine mandates enjoy broad public support. Earlier this week, a protest on Staten Island made national headlines, after an attendee claimed that schools and town halls would be “burned to the ground” if the state implements a vaccine requirement for children.

The backlash among city workers hasn’t been limited to the sanitation department. More than 2,000 firefighters have been out on medical leave over the last week, a phenomenon largely driven by “bogus sick leave” that has put New Yorkers in danger, according to Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro. Eighteen fire companies were closed citywide on Monday, the official said.

Protesters outside a sanitation facility on Staten Island, blocking trucks

People protest New York City's municipal workforce vaccine mandate on Staten Island, November 1, 2021

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People protest New York City's municipal workforce vaccine mandate on Staten Island, November 1, 2021
Alex Kent / Gothamist

While the NYPD has only seen a few dozen officers placed on unpaid leave, roughly 8,000 members of the department have applied for medical or religious exemptions, by far the most of any agency.

As he enters his second week without a trash pick-up, Cuautle, the Eltingville resident, wondered if there are limits to his neighbors’ backing of the absent sanitation workers.

“All the garbage outside of people’s homes is problematic,” he said. “I think they’re going to start changing their minds if this continues.”