Public washrooms remain closed as other services reopen

Alternating sinks in the restroom at Penn Square mall are taped off to promote social distancing as the mall reopens Friday, May 1, 2020, in Oklahoma City. The mall has closed one of two restrooms and five of seven entrances. The mall has been closed since mid-March due to coronavirus concerns. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

As municipalities slowly begin to reopen across the country, there are still certain barriers that make leaving the house for longer stretches of time challenging. Namely, the lack of public washrooms available to the general public.

While businesses and services are gradually getting back to work in various capacities, many public washrooms across Canada are remaining closed for health reasons. Additionally, facilities where one could access a restroom, like community centres or libraries, remain closed and restaurants in many cities continue to operate as takeout or pick-up only.

Restrooms can be a vector of disease transmissions if they’re not properly cleaned, so one way to lower this risk is to keep them closed. But with summer weather on the horizon and more people spending time outside, this could prove to be a serious problem.

In Toronto, which has previously been criticized for not having enough public restrooms, several city-operated facilities with showers, washrooms, and drinking water have opened during the pandemic. While these spaces are for anyone to use, they are also meant to provide a space for vulnerable populations who wouldn’t have access to these services otherwise. 

In Vancouver, 34 portable toilets and 11 portable washing stations were installed throughout the Downtown Eastside, where many residents relied on publicly accessible washrooms prior to the shutdown of public spaces. The temporary washroom facilities drew safety concerns and will be removed and replaced by temporary washroom trailers later this week. Those will be on hand until restrictions are lifted and facilities have reopened again.

Meanwhile, in Prince George, B.C., public bathroom facilities in the downtown area have opened from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. to midnight, and are being monitored by a local social service agency.

Edmonton has kept certain public washroom facilities open with enhanced cleaning, disinfection and monitoring to ensure users follow physical distancing rules. Three temporary washroom and shower facilities were also opened near several recreational centres and parks.

Shauna Brail is an associate professor with the Urban Studies Program at the University of Toronto. She says if we’re encouraging people to return to whatever new normal we’re going to, people need to not be afraid to go out. But not having access to a washroom doesn’t help this cause.

She points to studies that show how if certain vulnerable populations, like the elderly or people with disabilities, can’t plan for access to a washroom, they will simply stay in.

“There are a lot of rapid response solutions that businesses and cities are coming up with in order to be able to think about how to bring public life back,” she says. “I’m sure there’s solutions and I’m sure those solutions are coming.”

Brail says the reopening of public restrooms could lead to more opportunities, especially if the spaces require additional cleaning and monitoring.

“We’re going to see new protocols around cleaning, and perhaps some jobs around ensuring those washrooms are cleaned,” she says. “It’s not just a matter of opening them. If they’re not cleaned, you’re going to have the same problem.”