When you’ve got to go No. 1 or No. 2, you’ve got no higher priority.
But finding a washroom to use has become a lot trickier in the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With many public washrooms in cities and provincial parks closed, some are warning a lack of accessible bathrooms could clog up the economy from effectively restarting.
“If you’re going to start opening things up, this ought to be the kind of stuff that comes first, or at least in tandem with,” said Mitchell Kosny, associate director of Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.
“I don’t think it’s rocket science to figure out how do you keep it clean all the time.”
Public Health Ontario confirmed the decision to reopen public washrooms is up to each municipality, in consultation with local health units.
The majority of public washrooms remain off-limits. The option to stop in a nearby Starbucks or McDonalds for a bathroom break has also been flushed away, with most eateries closed to customers.
It’s also an issue for those wish to visit reopened provincial parks, but are unsure of what they’ll do when the other nature calls.
Provincial parks opened for day use two weeks ago, but only now are some on-site washrooms being reopened. Even then, they’re few and far between. Washrooms are open at John E. Pearce Provincial Park in Elgin County, but those found at Komoka and Pinery parks remain closed.
“It’s important that you come to the park prepared with hand sanitizer, extra water and other supplies, just in case,” said Andrew Buttigieg, a spokesperson for Jeff Yurek, the provincial minister of environment, conservation and parks.
Reports out of last mass gathering at Trinity-Bellwoods Park in Toronto on May 24 included some of people urinating in the open air as no washrooms were open in the park.
Kosny said as long as public washrooms remain closed, this kind of behaviour likely will continue.
Huron County Warden Jim Ginn said the issue of when to reopen bathrooms is “a little foggy” but that discussions are underway as the province continues to lift other pandemic restrictions.
“It’s certainly something we’re looking at. It’s mainly a lakeshore issue,” he said.
Although tourism still isn’t encouraged in Ontario, Ginn acknowledged many businesses in beach towns along Lake Huron can’t survive on locals alone.
“We can’t lose July and August. Some of our businesses make half or three-quarters of their money in those months,” Ginn said. “We need those two months in the summer to save some of these businesses.”
In a statement, Dr. Miriam Klassen, Huron Perth’s medical officer of health, said the health unit “provides guidance on cleaning and disinfection, and other public health measures, to municipalities to assist them in making their decision. Each municipality decides if their public bathrooms will open or close, however.”
A lack of accessible bathrooms is a deterrent for many to travel any distance to shop or visit a park, according to Lezlie Lowe, the Halifax-based author of No Place To Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs.
“I think you cannot expect to reopen the economy without reopening bathrooms,” she said.
Closing up bathrooms also takes away an essential place for citizens to practise good hand hygiene.
“As more people are out and about, that’s the only place they have to go,” Lowe said. “There is an added need to keep public bathrooms open.”
As for whether bathrooms are a breeding ground for COVID-19 transmission, Lowe said if they are properly configured to allow for social distancing and have increased cleaning, they shouldn’t be any riskier than, say, riding an elevator or going in other public spaces.
The barrier that closed washrooms present to participating in the economy effectively — or even just visiting a public space or park — is likely to be felt more by certain individuals.
Lowe said people who use mobility devices or have Crohn’s disease or colitis, along with women, children and the elderly, may particularly find an absence of washrooms an impediment to going out.
“So much of going to the bathroom is about timing,” Lowe said. “If you can hold it for three or four hours and you’re like a camel, you’re allowed in. But if you have a weak bladder, you’re not invited to the park. It’s hugely problematic.”