When nature calls: How safe are public washrooms in the coronavirus pandemic?

Click to play video: 'Pandemic casts spotlight on need for increase public washrooms'
Pandemic casts spotlight on need for increase public washrooms
More plans are in the works after the Halifax Regional Municipality installed some portable toilets behind the Central Library, but some feel the virus showcases a need for more public washroom facilities in urban areas. – Jun 10, 2020

As provinces continue to reopen, Canadians are spending time in public spacesand are relying on public washrooms to accommodate them. 

Knowing where and how to “go” safely in a pandemic involves planning and prior to washrooms reopening, some Torontonians were opting to relieve themselves on park property.

Now public bathrooms have reopened across the province as municipalities have recognized that if groups are physically distancing in areas like parks, washrooms will need to be available on site.

The City of Toronto announced at the start of the month that about 200 park washrooms would open by the middle of June. The gradual opening was deliberate to create the “best result for the health of the public and city cleaning staff,” Coun. James Pasternak said in a statement.

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There are ways to reduce your risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 when using a public washroom, and you can assess if a specific washroom is safe enough for you to use, experts told Global News.

It’s important to remember that when it comes to COVID-19, the primary risk factor is the number of people you are around, said Allison McGeer, an infectious diseases specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.

“It is a little difficult in bathrooms sometimes to maintain social distancing. So that’s a bit of an issue,” said McGeer.

But ultimately, making more of an effort to distance in a bathroom is a better option than leaving bathrooms closed, she said. 

The most important precaution to take when using these facilities is to wash your hands thoroughly, because that will mitigate the risk of touching certain surfaces, she said.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: No public washrooms in Toronto leave people with no place to go'
Coronavirus: No public washrooms in Toronto leave people with no place to go

Putting bathroom tissue on the toilet seat as an extra barrier against contact, but washing your hands before you touch your face is the main advice to follow, said McGeer.

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When lining up outside a washroom, McGeer recommends standing two metres apart from others, she said. 

Public washrooms can vary in size, so it’s crucial to keep your distance from others as much as possible in this environment, she added.

“You need to avoid crowded washrooms. It seems to me that this is something that can be done co-operatively,” she said.

Signs on the floor to encourage users to distance could be helpful, depending on the size of the bathroom, she said. 

Public washrooms already ‘scary places’ 

Public washrooms were breeding grounds for bacteria before COVID-19 was an issue, and the illness doesn’t make the environment any worse than it already was, said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto. 

“Public washrooms are already pretty scary places. You want to be very mindful about what you’re touching, about cleaning your hands and minimizing the amount of time you spend in there,” said Furness.

The one change to make to your behaviour when it comes to COVID-19 is to keep in mind how many people are in the washroom, he said. 

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One-person bathrooms where you can close the door and no one else is there are safer, as you’re not sharing air, he added.

If it’s difficult to distance yourself from others in a bathroom, wear a mask and rethink whether it’s worth it, he said. 

“I would look at alternatives,” he said.

But he says that doesn’t mean you should use a bush, as that creates a new set of public health concerns as well. 

While it’s complicated to assess the risk of using a public washroom, municipalities may want to consider hiring an employee to manage the flow of traffic, he added. However, he said that would be an additional cost, and the employees would be put at risk managing that kind of space. 

Click to play video: 'Regina Beach residents say lack of public washrooms leading to ‘human waste’ along walking paths'
Regina Beach residents say lack of public washrooms leading to ‘human waste’ along walking paths

How often should washrooms be cleaned? 

For those concerned about the cleaning schedule for public washrooms, washing your hands should protect you from becoming infected by touching surfaces, said McGeer.

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“I’m sure they are being cleaned more often than they usually are, but they almost certainly don’t need to be. You just have to wash your hands,” she said.

The coronavirus doesn’t spread easily by touching a contaminated surface, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states on its website.

You’re more likely to catch the disease through person-to-person contact, the CDC states. Researchers are still determining how disease transfer is possible via surfaces, according to a previous Global News report.

Frequent cleaning of surfaces that are touched often would make public washrooms safer overall, but it’s not necessarily an option that should be relied on, said Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor at the University of Alberta.

“The common feature at the end of the day is that your hands are contaminated. So after leaving, make sure that you’ve cleaned your hands again with sanitizer,” she said. 

In an ideal world, cleaning between each use would be the best option, she said. But the main pathway for an individual to become infected is still through one’s hands or from being in around others, she added. 

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“There’s not going to be a zero-risk scenario for people that are re-engaging in life. But you can modify the risk a lot by doing the simple things,” she said.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

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