Washington Post - May 18, 2020
Whether it’s the mall, restaurants, concerts, ballparks or even drive-in movie theaters, Americans are making it clear: They won’t be ready to go out to their favorite destinations until they feel confident about being able to go. To the bathroom, that is.
The idea of a return to life in public is unnerving enough for many people. But it turns out that one of the biggest obstacles to dining in a restaurant, renewing a doctor’s appointment or going back to the office is the prospect of having to use a public restroom — a tight, intimate and potentially germ-infested space.
It’s a hurdle vexing many business owners as they prepare to reopen in a time of social distancing, reduced capacity and heightened anxiety about the very air we breathe.
A Texas barbecue restaurant reopened only after hiring for a new job category: a bathroom monitor, who assures that people waiting their turn are spaced well apart. In Florida, malls are installing touch-free sinks and hand dryers in restrooms before opening their doors. McDonald’s is requiring franchisees to clean bathrooms every 30 minutes. Across the country, businesses are replacing blow dryers with paper towels, decommissioning urinals that now seem too close together, and removing restroom doors to create airport-style, no-touch entrances.
Solutions to people’s anxieties might not be quite so simple, said Steven Soifer, president of the American Restroom Association, which advocates for safer and more private public bathrooms.
“Americans have always had a fear of contamination from public restrooms,” said Soifer, who also is a professor of social work at the University of Mississippi. “What we’re seeing now is part just heightened anxiety, but it’s also part reality-based. Public restrooms in this country generally have open toilet seats — no lids — and high-pressure flushes create a plume of droplets that extends at least six feet.”
The coronavirus has been found in human waste up to a month after a victim has recovered. And a study published last week concluded that droplets from human speaking can hang in the air for at least eight minutes.
Makers of bathroom fixtures have seen a surge of restaurant owners and workplace managers ordering thorough renovations of their bathrooms — a level of attention unusual in a country where many public restrooms haven’t moved much higher up the design ladder than the stereotypically awful gas station bathroom.
“People are converting to fixtures with touchless features,” said Jon Dommisse, director of strategy for Bradley Corp., a Wisconsin-based maker of workplace washroom equipment. “They’re swapping out faucets, dryers, anything with buttons, levers, knobs. They’re reducing the number of people allowed in at a time, taking doors off and adding wash stations outside the bathroom to relieve crowding. Most of all, we’re seeing a commitment to almost relentless levels of cleaning.”
Bradley regularly conducts national surveys about bathrooms, and even in good times, 76 percent of Americans say they’ve had memorably bad experiences in public restrooms. The latest survey, conducted last month, found that 91 percent of consumers want touchless fixtures in bathrooms, Dommisse said, “a number we’ve never seen before.”
Going away: Push-button soap dispensers, and those high-velocity hand dryers that can blow germs across an entire room. Coming to a restroom near you: More copper fixtures — copper has antimicrobial properties — and dryers integrated into the sink so no one walks across the room dripping water.
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