Yearning for the sea, or at least a vista beyond Arlington, Dan Seligson and his family are contemplating a day trip to Marblehead. If they do go, he’s already got one pandemic‐related challenge figured out: his bathroom strategy.
He plans to eat or drink nothing after dinner the night before. And on expedition morning, he will allow himself a lone cup of coffee, at sunrise.
“It’s like I’m preparing for surgery,” said Seligson, a director of communications at a nonprofit.
Is the pandemic laughing at us? We’ve been (somewhat) freed from our homes, but now the need to go, or just the fear of needing to go, is keeping us leashed.
Many public restrooms are closed, and of those that are open, some were too filthy even pre-COVID-19. Others look clean, but who knows who else is — or was — in there shedding the virus?
Private bathrooms — at socially distanced backyard family get-togethers — aren’t always an option, either. No one wants to infect the cousins or grandparents.
Nearly every person the Globe spoke to thought he or she was alone in their “bathroom obsession,” but in fact nearly half of people informally surveyed by the American Restroom Association, at the Globe’s request, said they are limiting trips outside due to restroom-related COVID-19 concerns.
“I am not taking a day trip with my son to look at a college because I am so anxious about public restrooms,” one respondent said.
“I am worried about lack of proper ventilation in small restrooms,” said another.
In Watertown, Purnima Thakre finds restroom limitations more restricting than social distancing requirements. “I haven’t gone anywhere beyond 30 minutes driving or walking distance from my home since March 5,” she said.
“I’ve been wondering if I should buy a truck with a porta‐potty,” joked Thakre, chief operating officer of Refine + Focus. “I need travel in my life to look forward to.”
Heidi LaFleche said she just wants to venture to MetroWest, where her extended family lives. But the clan has agreed they’re not going into each others’ homes — not even for a bathroom dart — and she’s certainly not using a roadside facility.
On Memorial Day weekend that meant she had to miss her niece’s 10th birthday party, a coronavirus-style socially distanced car parade in Grafton, a 45-minute trip from her home.
When her absence was explained to the family — “Aunt Heidi doesn’t want to use the bathroom on the Pike” — the group understood immediately.
Public restrooms seem humble, but in fact they’ve long played a large role in American society. Access has been a flashpoint in the fight over civil rights for Black Americans, those with disabilities, and transgender people.
The latest issue is the invisible threat that may lurk within. A study found that droplets from human speech can hang in the air for up to 14 minutes in a closed, “stagnant‐air environment.”
And even though the current thinking is that the coronavirus is spread mainly person‐to‐person, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is less likely to be picked up from surfaces, it’s hard for the public to forget earlier reports about the virus lingering for days on surfaces. People who are still quarantining and wiping down Cheerios boxes are unlikely to feel confident about a doorknob in a dinky gas station bathroom.
Some women are buying portable female urination devices— “Tinkle Belle” and “GoGirl” among them — and figuring they’ll find a private spot like the guys do.
Barbara Golder, a retired occupational therapist from Lexington, bought a Pee-Buddy funnel. “I really miss going anywhere more than 30 minutes away,” she said.
With bathroom avoidance threatening to keep customers away, businesses are making changes, both high and low tech.
Some are adding outdoor port-a-potties to comply with social-distancing requirements. Others are adding attachments that allow a door to be opened with an arm or a foot.
A California startup Good2Go has created an app-based, completely touchless system that alerts a user when it’s her turn to use the restroom, and then uses a digital key to unlock and automatically open the door. “Welcome to Restroom 2.0,” its website proclaims.
McDonald’s has sent franchisees a 59-page “Dine-in Reopening Playbook” that requires restroom sanitizing at least every 30 minutes, and recommends products including a $310 automatic towel dispenser and a $718 touchless sink.
In Boston, restaurant consultant Ed Doyle, president of RealFood Hospitality, Strategy and Design, said clients have talked about hiring bathroom monitors to limit occupancy, and he’s recommending that owners make disinfecting efforts very visible — the “theater of sanitation,” he called it.
“The new Yelp reviews,” he said, “are going to be, ‘Did you see someone cleaning?’ ”
People confessing to bathroom challenges tend to make jokes, but there’s nothing funny about the situation.
Sue Florence of Shrewsbury lost her mother right before the pandemic hit, and between social distancing and now the lack of acceptable restrooms, she’s been unable to properly grieve with family or get a change of scenery.
“I just need to be out,” she said, “and feel a sense of being alive.”