Will COVID-19 kill public drinking fountains?
Advocates say they are necessary public infrastructure and must stay accessible
When was the last time you drank from a water fountain?
If you live in the City of Windsor, the last time a public spout quenched your thirst was likely 2019.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, all of Windsor's 18 outdoor public drinking water fountains have been switched off, along with nearly 200 others located inside city buildings and city-run facilities.
This has been the case in many municipalities across Ontario due to recommendations from public health officials, but some poverty advocates and public policy experts say access to water should be prioritized.
And with Windsor in the middle of yet another heat warning — its 10th one this summer, the highest number of warnings the city has seen in recent years, according to Environment Canada — it's left people experiencing homelessness with fewer options to stay hydrated.
"It's vital, access to water is a fundamental determinant of health and a basic human right," said Kate Mulligan, director of policy and communications at the Alliance for Healthier Communities in Toronto.
"People who are living without access to a home not only are facing risks around water, sanitation and hygiene —the most basic defences against COVID-19 — but also don't have that fundamental feeling of belonging in the community that we all need," Mulligan said.
Mulligan, who is also an assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, said she's read the infection prevention and control measures that are used for public drinking water fountains across Ontario.
After reading these protocols, she said her understanding is the risk of getting COVID-19 from public water fountains is "quite low."
Fountains not 'entirely safe': public health
But Dr. Wajid Ahmed, Windsor-Essex's medical officer of health, told CBC News that the fountains do create the possibility for people to come into contact with the virus. He said since it's not known if water can transmit the virus, he can't say it's "entirely safe."
There simply isn't enough information available either way, he said.
"We don't know that if drinking water from a water fountain would put you at a risk of COVID," Ahmed said.
Meanwhile, the city's senior manager of parks James Chacko said if the city were to reopen fountains, it would be hard to keep them clean.
"It's very difficult, if not impossible, for us to maintain any sort of cleanliness and disinfecting protocols in place for those," he said.
Splash pads open before water fountains
Mulligan says shutting the fountains was understandable at the start of the pandemic, but at this stage it's unacceptable.
"[Some jurisdictions had] splash pads opened before the water fountains that were adjacent to them and that's not necessarily the most equitable response when there are people who really need access to the basic drinking water," she said.
"I think there's no strong argument at this stage, given this particular health condition, to revoke people's access to a very fundamental health need," said Mulligan.
It's just another way of excluding people from their community, Mulligan added.
"Offering water in many different kinds of places where many different kinds of people can gather is one expression of community belonging and solidarity at a time when we really need it," she said.
At this point she said cities should be having conversations around these issues and getting to the root of the problem, which is a lack of housing.
After a petition from locals, the City of Greater Sudbury decided to re-open one of its outdoor public drinking water fountain at the end of July for those who are homeless.
At this time, Chacko said the city is following guidance from local public health officials and will continue to do so when it comes to reopening fountains.
Chacko said there's no maintenance costs to keeping the fountains turned off and the city has yet to discuss what it will do with the fountains in the long term.
In the meantime, Chacko said the city opened up a temporary respite for people at Windsor's Water World.
But Mulligan said this isn't good enough.
Local homelessness advocate Christine Wilson-Furlonger added that centralizing resources for those who are homeless in one area could be worse when it comes to COVID-19.
"Certainly all that does is cause more congestion of people in one area, forcing all the homeless to go in one location," Wilson-Furlonger said.