“Are we there yet?”
“Stop touching me!”
“99 bottles of beer on the wall….”
And, of course, the dreaded… “I have to go to the bathroom!”
Even during the best of times, the need for restrooms always manages to hit at the most inopportune moments. Add a pandemic to the mix, and things get even hairier.
During the first week of shelter-in-place I found myself driving home from an out-of-town work trip (hooray for the joys of essential work). The trip was about two hours long. I was halfway back home when the urge hit me. I needed to use the restroom, but nothing was open. All of the restaurants and coffee shops had gone dark. There were no rest areas along my route. The two gas stations I passed had bathrooms, but of course they were out of order. To make matters worse, I was travelling through a wide-open area with nary a big bush to squat behind. Luckily, my story had a happy ending. With my legs crossed, and trying very hard not to speed, I slammed into my parking spot at home and made a mad dash for the bathroom door. I arrived just in time.
My near miss drove me to find a solution to prevent future mishaps. I did not want to experience the discomfort and uncertainty caused by an absence of the proper facilities ever again.
Fortunately, as safety conditions have lightened, more businesses (and their bathrooms) are open once again. That said, it can still be a challenge to find a restroom, and once you finally find your porcelain throne, you may hesitate at the door and wonder if it’s even safe to use.
Are public bathrooms safe?
When you gotta go, you gotta go! There’s no arguing when Nature calls. However, I can’t help but consider how many people use public restrooms with no concern for the persons who will be in there after they’ve left. Most public bathrooms seem a bit grody at the best of times, but these days we’re looking at public facilities in a whole new light. How often are the bathrooms sanitized? Did everyone wash their hands? Did the people before wear a mask before they sneezed over the faucet?
There is an inherent risk in using public bathrooms. Every business has different sanitation standards. Stephen Berger is an infectious disease expert and co-founder of the Global Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology Network (GIDEON). Berger stated, “Lavatories are closed and poorly ventilated. Water droplets linger in the air after flushing, washing hands, or sneezing/coughing. Sinks and urinals are crowded. And there are many high-touch surfaces.”
New research suggesting that Covid-19 might be aerosol transmissible brings to light new dangers of public bathrooms. We already knew that flushing the toilet with the seat up (unavoidable in most public restrooms that do not have seat covers) sprays a layer of ‘toilet plumes.’ These plumes are composed of toilet water droplets that have mixed together with feces and other waste. As the toilet flushes, it shoots a light, aerosol mist into the air. This light fog of refuse settles on all nearby surfaces and people. An article published in the Physics of Fluids found evidence that suggests that the Coronavirus might be transmitted through toilet plumes as well as respiratory droplets. Researchers created a simulation of coronavirus-positive waste flushed down the toilet. They found that an alarming 40%-60% of virus-positive particles reached above the toilet seat. These results can lead to wide-spread virus contamination through public bathrooms.
But you still really gotta go, so what do you do?
- Wear your mask.
- Don’t touch your face.
- Use paper towels, plastic sandwich bags, or disposable gloves to touch surfaces. (Be sure to properly dispose of them afterwards.)
- Practice social distancing around sinks and while waiting for the toilet.
- Wash your hands as you leave. Use hand sanitizer after you leave the building and touch all the door knobs.
- Carry a small pack of travel disinfectant wipes. If it is a single-occupancy restroom, quickly wipe the faucet, toilet flusher, and door handle.
What restrooms are open?
My go-to bathroom breaks on the road were at places/services with good cleaning practices. Unfortunately, many of these places have closed or no longer have restrooms open to the public. I used to stop at Starbucks or Peet’s for bathrooms and caffeine. These days, one can’t even rely on gas stations to have open restrooms! After some research and time on the road, I have discovered some fairly reliable stops:
- Truck stop gas stations. Truckers are essential workers. As such, gas stations and facilities that cater to truckers are generally open.
- Rest stops. Except for the toilets that were out-of-order, all of the rest stops I have stopped at during the shutdown have been open. Again, they cater to essential truckers.
- McDonald’s. At the beginning of the pandemic, all of the McDonald’s cafes were closed. In recent weeks, though, their restrooms have been reopened.
- Grocery stores.
- Coin-op public bathrooms. Some cities such as Portland, San Jose, and San Francisco have public pay bathrooms. If you’re travelling to one of these cities, be sure to have a bag of change with you just in case. But keep in mind that most of these bathrooms are not regularly sanitized.
Need some more options? Charmin recently launched a bathroom-finder app called Sit or Squat. App users can rate bathrooms on how well the bathroom was stocked and the level of cleanliness.
Now that you are fully armed with knowledge, science, and bathroom resources, you are prepared for the inevitable: “I’ve gotta go to the bathroom!”
Submitted by Teresa Henry, Solano County – Vacaville.