Where to go? What happens when nature calls during a pandemic

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Vancouver taxi drivers like Kulwant Sahota have been working throughout the pandemic. They have been getting people where they need to go, but their own need to go to the bathroom during the shift was a challenge.”You just have to stick to a small café so you don’t have to use the toilet as much,” said Mr. Sahota, who is also the president of Yellow Cab.

The usual places where drivers would have access to the washrooms, such as gas stations and cafes, have closed their facilities. Some are starting to reopen them, but for dinner-in guests only.

As more people begin to spend time outdoors, the COVID-19 pandemic underscores the need for more public toilets in communities across Canada.

Sahota said it is so difficult to find a bathroom to use or wash their hands during COVIDE-19 that many drivers carry jugs of milk full of water so they can wash their hands while on the road. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Some cities have mobile phones in place to deal with the problem, including Vancouver. The city also has a long-running number of public toilets run by the city.

But Sahota said these are overused now that bathrooms in businesses are closed.

“you don’t want to catch anything and obviously other people use these toilets… and they’re not sanitized as much, so you don’t know who used it before you,” he said.

And the further you get from downtown Vancouver, the fewer public toilets available,” said Rania Hatz, Executive Director of the Cambie Village Business Improvement Association.

“During the pandemic, we could see how many people on the street or how many people who could just go out for a walk, depend on access to a toilet,” she said.

Rania Hatz, executive director of the Cambie Village Business Improvement Association, said there are fewer public bathrooms further from downtown where you walk away. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

She and her team even had to collect human excrement in the alleys and doors of businesses.

“You have to realize that there are homeless people. There are people who used to access bathrooms in businesses and these businesses have not been open for the last two months. As a human being, they have to go,” she said.

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Journalist Lezlie Lowe of Halifax, who advocated for more public toilets before the arrival of the COVIDE-19 pandemic in Canada, said cost could be a factor in why cities did not install more.

“Bathrooms cost money. They are expensive in terms of capital investment. They can be expensive in terms of continuous maintenance and as far as COVID-19 is concerned, there is an extra clean-up that needs to be done and that all costs of the argen,” said Lowe, author of No Place To Go: How public toilets fail our private need.

But public bathrooms are needed to create livable cities for everyone, she says.

Kelly Murphy, the manager of The Yolks restaurant on East Hastings Street in Vancouver, wipes the high surfaces in the toilets, which staff do every 15 minutes to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Some small cafes in Vancouver have devoted additional resources to ensure that their toilets meet pandemic standards.

“Just outside the toilet, we have a timer that is set for 15 minutes. It goes off, whoever’s closest off the timer, cleans the toilet and then they start that they did it and we keep a diary of that,” said Kelly Murphy, manager of The Yolks restaurant on East Hastings Street in Vancouver.

But Lowe said relying on private companies to provide bathrooms does not work during a pandemic when those stores are closed and also leads to access being restricted.

“Often what happens is that people who are homeless can be denied access and it is allowed because it is a private environment. If you have a public bathroom on the street, then it allows everyone to use it, without asking any questions,” she said.

Vancouver has installed more portable toilets like this one in the Downtown Eastside to help with the absence of open toilets during the pandemic. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Jeremy Hunka, homeless advocate and spokesperson for the Union Gospel Mission, agrees that the lack of bathrooms has been a huge problem for the most vulnerable.

“It’s actually a big deal and it has an impact on people in a very intimate, private and everyday way,” Hunka said.

Lack of access to toilets also limits people’s ability to practice good hygiene, putting them at greater risk during the pandemic, he said.

Jeremy Hunka, spokesman for the Union Gospel Mission, said the lack of toilets was a major concern for the city’s most vulnerable population. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

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