Where to go? What happens when nature calls during a pandemic
COVID-19 restrictions and safety measures highlight the need for more public washrooms
Vancouver taxi drivers like Kulwant Sahota haven't stopped working throughout the pandemic. They've been getting people to where they need to go, but their own need to go to the bathroom while on shift has been a challenge.
"You just stick to a small coffee so you don't really have to use the washroom as much," said Sahota, who is also the president of Yellow Cab.
The usual places drivers would access washrooms, such as gas stations and coffee shops, have closed their facilities. Some are starting to reopen them, but for dine-in customers only.
As more people begin to spend time outdoors, the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the need for more public washrooms in communities across Canada.
Some cities have set up portables to address the problem, including Vancouver. The city has also long had a number of city-operated public toilets available.
But Sahota said those are being overused now that bathrooms in businesses are shut.
"You don't want to be catching anything and obviously other people are using those washrooms … and they're not sanitized as much, so you don't know who has used it before you," he said.
And the further out from Vancouver's downtown core you go, the fewer public washrooms are available, said Rania Hatz, executive director for the Cambie Village Business Improvement Association.
"During the pandemic, we've been able to see how many people on the street or how many people who might just be going out for a walk, rely on access to a washroom," she said.
She and her team even had to pick up human feces from alleyways and doorways of businesses.
"You have to realize that there are people that are homeless. There are people who used to access the bathrooms in the businesses and these businesses have not been opened for the last couple of months. As a human being they have to go," she said.
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Halifax-based journalist Lezlie Lowe, who has been advocating for more public washrooms before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Canada, said cost may be a factor as to why cities haven't installed more.
"Bathrooms cost money. They are expensive in terms of capital investment. They can be expensive in terms of ongoing maintenance and with regard to COVID-19, there is additional cleaning that needs to be done and that all costs money," said Lowe, author of No Place To Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Need.
But public bathrooms are necessary to create livable cities for everyone, she said.
Some smaller cafes in Vancouver have committed extra resources to making sure their washrooms satisfy pandemic standards.
"Right outside the washroom we have a timer that's set for 15 minutes. It goes off, whoever's closest turns off the timer, cleans the washrooms and then they initial that they've done so and we keep a log of that," said Kelly Murphy, manager of Yolks restaurant on East Hastings Street in Vancouver.
But Lowe said relying on private businesses to provide bathrooms doesn't work during a pandemic when those shops are closed and also leads to access being restricted.
"Often what happens is people who are experiencing homelessness can be denied access and that's allowable because it's a private setting. If you have an on-street public bathroom, then that allows everybody to use it, no questions asked," she said.
Homeless advocate and Union Gospel Mission spokesperson Jeremy Hunka agrees the lack of bathrooms has been a huge issue for the most vulnerable.
"It's actually a really big deal and it impacts people in a really intimate, private and daily way," said Hunka.
Lack of access to washrooms also limits people's ability to practice good hygiene, putting them further at risk during this pandemic, he said.