“Traveling with a young child and being seven months pregnant means a lot of‘ petty views, ’” said Balaban, a communications expert who moved from San Francisco to the Philadelphia area in early April. But Balaban worried that finding safe, clean public toilets would be a challenge.
To mitigate the risk, she packed disposable masks and gloves. When they stopped at gas stations, the family tried to avoid touching anything unnecessary.
Everyone disinfected their hands every time they got back in the car, and Balaban wiped the high-touch surfaces that would probably contain germs.
Still, the toilet was stressful.
“If you don’t have to use a public toilet, don’t,” said microbiologist Ali Nouri, president of the Federation of American Scientists. “That’s the first thing you need to know.”
Like Balaban, Nouri recently traveled by car, a three-hour drive over the weekend. He avoided using the bathroom and put a diaper on his four-year-old. But as Americans adjust to the ongoing pandemic, he knows that skipping public restrooms will not be possible at all.
“It’s not always practical,” he admitted. “Sometimes when you have to go, you have to go.”
How risky are public toilets?
They are not great. Nouri said he looks out for public bathrooms because the rooms are relatively small. This makes it difficult to practice social distancing, which scientists agree is key to fighting a pandemic.
Toilets may also be poorly ventilated. “The bathrooms are enclosed spaces and have no windows,” he said. “So the virus will just stay in that environment.”
This worsens flushing toilets, which can send clouds of aerosolized particles circulating in the air. PSA: Always lower the lid before you cover, if there is a cover!
Finally, shared restrooms have the same dangers from any public place during a pandemic: a person infected with Covid-19 may have touched handles, faucets, and other places.
Preventing human-to-human transmission
This means it’s best to use a bathroom with one hallway that you don’t have to share.
Even if this is not possible, Nouri noted that wearing masks and practicing social distancing can reduce some of the risk of using a public toilet.
Those in charge of maintaining public toilets can also encourage good practices by touching alternative sinks or urinals to ensure visitors stay out. But if you peek in the door and see a room full, that’s a problem.
“If you can afford to wait until other people finish and they leave, then you should wait,” Nouri said. “You reduce the risk of inhaling other people’s aerosolized particles.”
Hand washing and hygiene in the public toilet
Even if you wear a mask and social distance, you should still be careful to wash your hands and practice good hygiene.
“This is a virus in which we have no pharmaceutical interventions,” Nouri said. “We have these low-tech drugs and it’s important to stick to the only weapon we have.”
If you have a pair of disposable gloves, Nouri suggested that you wear them while they are in the toilet, and then throw them in the trash when you go out. You can even move a clean plastic bag over your arm.
Do not mess freshly cleaned hands by touching the germ-coated tap handles. Use a paper towel to turn off the water and open the bathroom door, then throw it away as you leave.
Read how to wash your hands properly
The bottom line in the bathrooms
“It’s important to think about relative risks,” Nouri said. Moving in public during a pandemic increases the risk of infection, but wearing masks, social distance, and good hygiene can help a lot.
As the pandemic continues, Nouri cares less about public restrooms and is more concerned about publicity.
“We tend to forget that there are more viruses out there today than there were when we (Americans) entered the blockade,” he said. “We have to remember that today is a more dangerous world than it was in mid-March.”
Given that, Nouri hopes people will stay on their feet.
When you need to visit a public restroom, Nouri suggested that we all use best practices and then go fast. “You don’t want to sit and read comics,” he said.