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We all need somewhere ‘to go’: Paucity of public washrooms is clogging up efforts to get outside and stay safe

During the pandemic, the one thing that is safe and healthy to do is be physically active outside. We have seen an enormous uptick in the use of public outdoor spaces, like parks and trails. But one major, universal barrier exists for people trying to follow public health directives: the lack of public washrooms.

Emily Scoular has long been advocating for public washrooms and has become even more vocal during the pandemic.

“Being able to leave your house comfortably – to be outdoors – is important for health,” says Scoular. “If you go out for a walk, you need to know the washrooms are going to be open. The closures of public washrooms during COVID makes no sense and is a real hindrance to people being outside.”

In her master’s thesis, she researched the history of public washrooms and the shortcomings of the current municipal model that tends to rely on publicly available washrooms rather than provide actual public washrooms.

Scoular, who currently works in an architectural firm in Vancouver, explains that through different jurisdictional building codes, municipalities are responsible for providing a certain number of toilets in publicly accessible buildings. She says the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the failure of relying on commercial toilets in private spaces – like malls, restaurants and cafes. “People are accustomed to being consumers to gain access to a washroom,” she adds. 

But with businesses shuttered or strict in terms of who can enter and use their washrooms, there is an exceptionally limited supply of public washrooms alongside the unprecedented need. 

Says Scoular: “‘Closed due to COVID’ or ‘closed for the season’ doesn’t cut it. We know people need washrooms if they are going to be outside and we need people to be able to get outside.”

To meet needs, some  cities have installed temporary portable toilets while others have opened municipally owned buildings for the sole purpose of offering a clean and safe place to use a washroom with an attendant on duty to clean and manage the facility.

Though Scoular acknowledges that there is an expense to adding public washrooms to the supply, they play an important role in everyone’s everyday experiences.

“People undertake complicated calculations of ‘what is my travel time, where can I go and how far and for how long can I go before I need to return home,’” Scoular says. “During COVID in particular, everyone has an experience or a story of that familiar but humiliating stress of needing a washroom urgently but not finding one.”

Scoular listed various groups that always have to contend with poor access to public washrooms – the elderly, the homeless, people who live far from their outdoor destinations, patients with cancer, Crohn’s or celiac disease, anyone who experiences incontinence and urgency. And with small children, it’s not a question of if but when they need a toilet when out in public.

Those fortunate enough to be able to venture out are forced to relieve themselves in public or at someone else’s house, thereby undermining current public health advisories.

“It’s hard not to make it sound dramatic. We fine people for public urination but then we don’t supply toilets or urinals,” Scoular muses. “Lack of public washrooms is symptomatic of larger social service gaps – some people don’t have a home or place to exist.”

COVID-19 has highlighted that taking care of the health of our most vulnerable is a matter of protecting everyone’s health, and that applies to access to public washrooms.

And yet, conversations around public washrooms tend to be shaped in terms of safety and nefarious behaviours. But rather than using that as a justification to not offer public washrooms, Scoular outlines specific research to draw upon to make public washrooms safe and attractive. We know that public washrooms are fundamental to people living together in modern urban cities. Research has shown that public washrooms can be made safe for use during the pandemic.

 “We’ve been relying on the private sector for way too long.” Scoular warns. “Knowing our deficiencies and gaps, that’s when we can move to make available the facilities we do have and in the future challenge what we put into our city planning and policies.”

In the meantime, as the pandemic drags on and people struggle to cope with curtailed indoor spaces, the public washroom is proving to be a linchpin in the efforts of individuals to stay healthy and safe.

Indeed, rather than “closed due to COVID,” public washrooms should be “open due to COVID.”

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Janette Leroux

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Janette Leroux is a postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy at Queen’s University. She holds a PhD in Health Studies, and her research explores the social context of health issues.