When Steven Soifer, a professor of social work at the University of Mississippi, and his wife left social isolation for the first time since early March, they encountered a well-known problem: the call of nature. They stopped at a Starbucks first, but the franchise only took drive-through orders – the bathrooms were closed. Finally, the couple came across a gas station, where a toilet appeared to be open.
“I walked in and I had my face mask on and rubber gloves, so I thought no problem at all,” explains Soifer, who also runs the American Restroom Association. “And so I lifted the toilet seat and realized: Oh my god, that touched the rubber gloves. So I have a problem here. ”
Soifer explained that he used his other, cleaner hand to open the door. He noted that the handle was made of stainless steel, which is not as antiviral as the brass fittings you see in many bathrooms. But it is virtually impossible to keep a bathroom completely hygienic, especially in the midst of a pandemic.
“So that there is an exact example of an attempt to navigate here in public,” Soifer added.
As states and municipalities continue to open up businesses, more and more people will have to use public toilets for the first time in months. But while a patron may feel comfortable in a socially aloof outdoor restaurant, bathrooms are a different story. They are packed with high-touch surfaces: doorknobs, toilet handles and seats, faucets and paper towel dispensers. This, in addition to the fact that toilets themselves can possibly spray a plume of aerosol particles into the air with every rinse.
So what do you do when you have to go and you’re not at home? Restaurants, parks and other public spaces are now looking for ways to safely manage toilets. They try everything from managing traffic flows with “bathroom monitors” to taping urinals to installing pedals so that people can open doors without touching the buttons. Some public areas simply choose to keep their toilets closed.
While these are all short-term solutions, they shape how future public toilets can change during and after this pandemic. But in the meantime, if you decide to venture out, there are some very healthy precautions you can take in the bathroom to keep yourself and the next person in line, a little bit safer.
Social distance in the bathroom is important, even at your friend’s house
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the new coronavirus is primary spreads when people are in close contact, such as when you are less than two meters away from others. That means that when you’re in a public or shared bathroom, your first concern should be to keep social distance.
“It can be more difficult to maintain physical distance when using public toilets, especially in a busy environment,” Susan Amirian, a research scientist at the Texas Policy Lab, told Recode. “Some facilities with public toilets have taped middle sinks or taken other measures to prevent people from being too close together.”
States that are starting to reopen have these concerns in mind. Health reopening guides encourage restaurants to check high-traffic areas like bathrooms and keep people from doing so getting together too close to those areas. To ensure social distance, some restaurants have even switched to using staff as bathroom monitors or taping off some urinals to avoid people are too close when urinating.
Seeing these measures should make you feel better about that public toilet option. The same principles apply to meetings at people’s homes. If you’re the host, consider some crowd control. After speaking with Marybeth Sexton, who is studying infectious diseases at Emory University, the Los Angeles Times reports:
If someone enters the house to use the toilet, let them in alone. When they are done, it is critical that they wash their hands very well. Then you want to clean the toilet afterwards.
Almost all household cleaners have indications that they kill the coronavirus. As long as you clean surfaces and wash hands, you should be safe.
(You can read the published CDCs guidelines for disinfecting these areas here).
In the bathroom, take basic precautions, such as washing your hands
Let’s repeat that point: When using a public bathroom, it’s best to wash your hands thoroughly. Vox explains how to do that best. You should also avoid touching your face and trying to hold up your mask.
Amesh Adalja, a scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, emphasizes that while surface transfer is possible, hand washing is an essential way to stay safe and clean.
“If you wash your hands, you really don’t have that risk,” said Adalja. “So if you’re someone who washes your hands carefully, one of the other things will be additive and probably a marginal value.”
Even if you wash your hands carefully, there are different danger zones in every bathroom. You should also pay attention to the ventilation of the bathroom and often touched fixtures such as door handles and contactless air dryers.
“Although your hands are likely to be clean after washing, you still recirculate the air in the bathroom and most bathrooms have poor air circulation,” warns Eric Feigl-Ding, a senior fellow and epidemiologist with the Federation of American Scientists.
Consider using paper towels if they are available. Researchers at the University of Leeds previously discovered that jet air dryers could help spread the spread aerosols Which to contaminate other surfaces and have warned that they should not be used in hospital toilets. You might as well keep them away in public toilets.
If you don’t have a choice, this is not the end of the world. Adalja, the Johns Hopkins scientist, claims that the choice between paper towel and hand dryer is unlikely to have a major impact on your chances of contracting the coronavirus.
What about faecal transmission of Covid-19?
Do not worry. There is some evidence that the new coronavirus can be found in poop, although the CDC says so it’s not clear that the virus has spread to other people. Even if it is possible, the chances of actually catching the new coronavirus via poop are probably extremely low. (Again, the best precautions a person can take are to wear a mask, don’t touch their face, wash their hands, and keep their distance from others.)
“The main problem is flushing, because unlike private homes with lids, most public bathrooms have only toilet seats and not the natural lid,” says Feigl-Ding. “We know that blushing is an aerosol generating event.”
He explains that the result of an aerosol-generating event is sometimes referred to as a “toilet plume.” A Looking back on 2013 of such plumes, which are caused by flushing, indicated studies showing that “potentially infectious aerosols can be produced in substantial quantities” and that “aerosolization can continue with multiple flushes to expose subsequent toilet users.” The study did not conclude on the actual transmission of blushing disease and was not concerned with the current coronavirus.
Regardless of how likely Covid-19 is to be transmitted by faecal contamination, Amirian said, it is always important to practice good hygiene in a public bathroom or even at home.
(Side note: Even if the coronavirus cannot be transmitted to other people via poop, a startup called Biobot collaborates with health researchers to monitor the spread of Covid-19 by testing water collected from sewers.)
What we can learn from the coronavirus bathroom problem
The coronavirus pandemic has emphasized the importance of bathrooms not only for our own cleanliness, but also for public health in general. And it’s not just about convenience: access to toilets is a human rights issue, especially for people who are homeless who struggle to find toilets, many of which are owned by private companies, such as Starbucks, and are not maintained by the government.
“It’s a huge problem,” said Soifer.
Another challenge is that while provinces and states continue to open up, sanitation will inevitably rest on the workers of those institutions. For example, in its guide to reopening its locations, McDonald’s has instructed its franchisees to clean every bathroom half an hour in the restaurants. To safely clean bathrooms, Feigl-Ding says those workers should have access to tons of personal protective equipment, including safety goggles and N95 masks. Some McDonald’s employees say the company is not doing enough.
While these are short-term measures, the pandemic could actually change the way we design bathrooms in the future.
“What we want to see in the long run are single, gender-neutral, fully enclosed water closets,” Soifer states, explaining that there may be washbasins outside the area where the toilet is housed, a setup he believes is already popular in Europe and parts of Asia.
Those changes could also lead to more interest in more stall separation, contactless soap and paper towel dispensers, and improved ventilation. Some experts think these bathrooms can clean themselves, perhaps with the help of automated disinfectant sprays or rays of UV light. This future sounds attractive because we all become hyper-aware of cleanliness in public places.
But for now, you’re safer if you keep social distance, wear a mask, don’t touch your face, and seriously wash your hands.