A porta-pottie beside Knox Presbyterian Church in downtown Ottawa, placed to allow people including those who are homeless or precariously housed to access a washroom, is seen on Wednesday, May 20, 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

COVID-19 pandemic highlights need for more public toilets, experts say

People are spending more time outside but have fewer businesses with washrooms available

The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the need for more public toilets in communities across Canada, particularly as softening restrictions encourage people to spend more time outside their homes, advocates and experts say.

The health crisis is drawing broader attention to an issue that has long been a barrier for racialized, trans and disabled people, as well those dealing with homelessness or poverty, the experts say.

Scarce access to washrooms was recently raised as a hurdle for essential workers, such as transit and truck drivers who could no longer rely on coffee shops and other businesses once those were ordered closed.

In the early days of Ontario’s lockdown, Toronto Mayor John Tory pleaded with shuttered businesses to allow essential workers to use their bathrooms.

But as some provinces begin to reopen their economies — and residents increasingly venture outside — the demand for restrooms will rise, even though commercial facilities will remain largely off-limits, said Lezlie Lowe, author of “No Place To Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs.”

“We don’t have this tradition of on-street, accessible, paid-for-by-municipal-governments bathroom provision. What we have in Canada is, we have Starbucks and Tim Hortons and McDonald’s and the other cafes and restaurants involved that we go into,” she said.

“We really consider those public toilets, but they’re not — they’re publicly accessible toilets, they’re effectively customer toilets.”

With those still out of commission, “people are going to have a sort of slap in the face and realize, ‘Oh my god, I was making do all this time with these publicly accessible toilets,’ and now people will hopefully start to realize how bad it is,” she said.

ALSO READ: B.C. records 21 new COVID-19 cases after three days of single-digit increases

The dearth of public toilets could also undermine the economic recovery by preventing people from staying out longer and spending more money, Lowe said.

Some Canadian cities, including Toronto and Ottawa, have installed temporary portable washrooms and handwashing stations to help offset the closure of commercial and civic spaces.

“The city continues to explore opportunities to locate additional portable toilets and handwashing stations at strategic locations across the city,” Toronto Coun. Joe Cressy wrote in announcing the new facilities earlier this month.

In Prince George, B.C., municipal officials have reopened public washrooms in a downtown plaza for the duration of the pandemic, with the facilities in operation and monitored in the mornings and evenings.

While so-called porta-potties serve an important purpose, they don’t fulfill the same range of needs as permanent facilities, which are often used for child care, administering medication and other things, said Emily Scoular, who wrote her master’s thesis at the University of British Columbia on public washrooms.

The costs of building and maintaining public toilets have typically been a deterrent for municipalities, but Scoular said the current situation shows a need to rethink how much of that responsibility has been relegated to private business.

READ MORE: B.C. work, school restart can’t be rushed, John Horgan says

“You’re asking people to be healthy, leave their homes, get exercise, participate in the public realm, and I think the city and city facilities need to kind of come and meet us on that,” she said.

“I know Toronto and Vancouver are closing streets to allow (physical) distancing, and that’s one thing that encourages people to leave their houses, but another is making sure needs are met.”

For some advocates whose calls for more public toilets vastly predate the pandemic, the attention recently given to the issue is an encouraging first step.

“Maybe this is what it takes to get some serious attention paid to public health, including toi­lets,” those behind Ottawa’s ”GottaGo!” campaign wrote in a recent op-ed published in a local community newspaper.

“A crisis can be an opportunity, so now is the time for all of us to advocate for a network of public toi­lets that include running water and soap for handwashing.”

ALSO READ: ‘Germ-killing robots’ to fight COVID-19 at this B.C. hospital

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

B.C. government eyes antlerless moose harvest increase in bid to save caribou

Antlerless moose hunts reduce predation for threatened mountain caribou, says ministry

Health and safety regulations to be followed by schools as they reopen Monday

Ministry of Education wrote a letter to parents dated May 28.

B.C. Court of Appeal upholds lower court decision on western boundary of Treaty 8

Several first nations believe the western boundary was and always has been at the Rocky Mountains

School will look a lot different, says Fort St. James Secondary School principal

The principal wrote a letter to parents informing them about what to expect at school on June 1.

7 projects in Vanderhoof, Fraser Lake and Burns Lake receive NKDF funding

Nechako-Kitamaat Development Fund Society announced $139,702 in funding on May 29.

If Trudeau won’t stand up to Trump, how will regular people: Singh

Trudeau did not directly answer a question about Trump’s actions amid protests

22 new COVID-19 test-positives, one death following days of low case counts in B.C.

Health officials urged British Columbians to ‘stand together while staying apart’

John Horgan says COVID-19 restrictions won’t be eased regionally

B.C. Liberals urge ‘tailored’ response based on infections

Feds get failing grade for lack of action plan on anniversary of MMIWG report

‘Instead of a National Action Plan, we have been left with a Lack-of-Action Plan’

B.C. ranchers, lodge operators say Indigenous land title shuts them out

Tsilhqot’in jurisdiction affects grazing, access to private property

Introducing the West Coast Traveller: A voyage of the mind

Top armchair travel content for Alaska, Yukon, BC, Alberta, Washington, Oregon and California!

As two B.C. offices see outbreaks, Dr. Henry warns tests don’t replace other measures

Physical distancing, PPE and sanitizing remain key to reduce COVID-19 spread

Greater Victoria drive-thru window smashed after man receives burger without mustard

Greater Victoria Wendy’s staff call police after man allegedly rips Plexiglas barrier off window

Murder charge upgraded in George Floyd case, 3 other cops charged

Floyd’s family and protesters have repeatedly called for criminal charges against all four officers

Most Read