The New Reality: Where do you go when the bathrooms are closed?

Click to play video: 'Pandemic casts spotlight on need for increase public washrooms'
Pandemic casts spotlight on need for increase public washrooms
WATCH: From a social worker, to a small business owner - many people feel the pandemic has cast a spotlight on the need for increased access to public washroom facilities in order to practice safe hygiene and handwashing. – Jun 10, 2020

This is the 12th in a series of stories looking at the new reality of life during the COVID-19 pandemic in the Maritimes. You can find the full series here.

For several months, Nova Scotians were told to stay indoors and significantly limit their time in public spaces in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Now, the province is slowly reopening the economy and easing restrictions around gathering and socializing.

The idea is to allow for the support of local businesses that feel comfortable reopening under public health protocols for their sector.

READ MORE: Pandemic highlights need for more public toilets, experts say

All of this comes with strict hygiene guidelines still in place, including the importance of handwashing. The World Health Organization states hand hygiene as being ‘extremely important to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus’.

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However, finding public washrooms can be challenging, especially when many businesses may no longer allow their washrooms to be used by non-customers, or, aren’t fully reopening for the foreseeable future.

“Just in going out myself around town. You always need to use the bathroom if you’re going for a walk,” Kelly Irvine said, the owner and operator of Coburg Social Bar and Cafe in Halifax.

“The waterfront seems to be a place where you can use a public washroom but in other areas, there’s not.”

Kelly Irvine is a small business owner who says she is cautiously reopening her cafe in Halifax and feels there needs to be more public washroom facilities available for people to use in efforts to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Kelly Irvine is a small business owner who says she is cautiously reopening her cafe in Halifax and feels there needs to be more public washroom facilities available for people to use in efforts to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Alexa MacLean/Global Halifax

Irvine describes her small business as a ‘community hub’ in Halifax and her cafe sits nestled in the university district of the city, typically very popular among students.

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Normally, Irvine says her cafe is open to anybody who needs to fill up their water bottle, or, use the washroom but those days aren’t back in full swing.

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Click to play video: 'Closed Glenora Ferry washrooms means people are relieving themselves elsewhere'
Closed Glenora Ferry washrooms means people are relieving themselves elsewhere

Irvine says that for now, the inside of the cafe remains closed but a takeout window and patio access are available for customers.

With that comes access to the washroom for customers and while she says she wouldn’t turn away somebody who desperately needs the washroom, she feels the pandemic has cast a light on a lack of public washrooms in the city.

“In other major cities around the world, there’s access. You might pay for them, a dollar, or 25 cents, or whatever but they are accessible in lots of cities around the world. So, I think we should do something like that too,” Irvine said.

Coburg Cafe handwashing station
Kelly Irvine has a sanitizer station setup outside of her cafe washroom for customers to use. She says she wouldn’t turn anyone away who desperately needed the washroom but the inside of the cafe remains closed to the public. Alexa MacLean/Global Halifax

Public libraries often serve as community spaces for the general public. Especially, for people in vulnerable situations who need refuge from the elements, or a place to wash up.

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Libraries across the municipality have been closed since mid-March and there is no firm reopening date in sight.

Two months after the libraries closed their doors, the city installed two portable washrooms and a handwashing station behind the Central Library in downtown Halifax.

“That’s just fundamental, basic human need and a need for people to do that with dignity and so why has it taken this to ensure that those place are available and not expecting that the businesses are the place for that to happen,” Cindy MacIsaac said, the executive director of Direction 180, a community-based, opioid treatment clinic in Halifax.

READ MORE: Handwashing stations added to porta-potties installed at Halifax Central Library

The temporary portable toilets are only accessible for eight hours a day.

Other municipal washrooms — in the North Commons and the Halifax Public Gardens — have since reopened.

Eric Jonsson community outreach worker
Eric Jonsson is a community outreach worker who has seen the impact a lack of public washroom facilities has had on vulnerable people like those experiencing homelessness. Alexa MacLean/Global Halifax

But community outreach social worker, Eric Jonsson, feels there needs to be a public washroom facility that doesn’t operate on restricted hours, in order to serve all members of the public equally.

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Not just those who can afford to spend money at restaurants.

“Guys that are living outside and face a lot of barriers to being housed,” Jonsson said.

“A lot of them used to be able to go to the bathroom at a fast food restaurant, or, I used to be able to go to the library to use the bathroom but now all these different places are closed and they don’t know where to go.”

A spokesperson for the municipality says plans to install other temporary public washrooms during the pandemic are currently underway but no official decisions have been made yet.

READ MORE: Toronto homeless man pleads for washroom, fresh water amid pandemic

Jonsson welcomes the idea of installing more temporary public washrooms. Without them, he feels there is a clear demonstration that public space isn’t meeting the needs of everyone.

“It just shows that our society has left certain people behind,” he said.

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