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

Racism is here too, say Victoria’s black community leaders

White Victorians have role to play in combatting systems of oppression, prejudice

Shortage of foreign workers costs Saanich Peninsula berry farmer thousands

Gobind Farms says hiring local has been difficult during pandemic

Pedestrian, cycling overpass now open at McKenzie Interchange

Bridge connects Portage Road, Galloping Goose Regional Trail

Pandemic spurs egg-citement for backyard chickens in Greater Victoria

Fowl surge in popularity during COVID-19 pandemic

VIDEO: B.C. dentist gets grand welcome home after two months in hospital fighting COVID-19

Michael Chow was given a surprise send off by hospital staff and ‘welcome home’ from neighbours

‘Like finding a needle in a haystack’: Ancient arrowhead discovered near Williams Lake

The artifact is believed to be from the Nesikip period between 7,500 BP to 6,000 BP

Indigenous families say their loved ones’ deaths in custody are part of pattern

Nora Martin joins other Indigenous families in calling for a significant shift in policing

PHOTOS: Anti-racism protesters gather in communities across B.C.

More protests are expected through the weekend

Indigenous chief alleges RCMP beat him during arrest that began over expired licence plate

Athabasca Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam calling for independent investigation

‘I’m pissed, I’m outraged’: Federal minister calls out police violence against Indigenous people

Indigenous Minister Marc Miller spoke on recent incidents, including fatal shooting of a B.C. woman

UPDATED: Pair accused of ‘horrific’ assault at Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park arrested

Police say Jason Tapp, 30, and Nicole Edwards, 33, did not show up to meet their bail supervisor this week

POLL: Are you sending your children back to school this month?

Classrooms looked decidedly different when students headed back to school for the… Continue reading

Most Read