Just how anxious will people actually be to return to normal economic activity in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic? We have grown accustomed to sharing space and social distancing in grocery stores, of course. We might even have enough practice to mitigate propagation in retail stores even while handling merchandise that might have been handled by others. Restaurants and bars will take even more time to reach comfort levels, while hair and nail salons will beckon just because of pent-up need for personal grooming.
However, one question looms over all of these issues, the Washington Post notes. Where will people actually go? You know … go? The need for relief might be a major limiting factor to the ability to rebound economically from the shutdown, no matter how aggressive state and local authorities try to roll back restrictions:
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.
Even drive-in theaters have this problem. While drive-ins have the virtue of isolation over the closed-HVAC systems of indoor cinemas, they both share one inevitable obstacle. It’s nearly impossible to sit through one movie, let alone a double feature, without finding a bathroom. (Or for that matter one Lord of the Rings film, especially since a scene with Arwen is the universally accepted signal for a, um, download.) One such drive-in had to hire extra employees to continually clean the facilities:
In San Luis Obispo, Calif., the Sunset Drive-In held back from reopening even though the health department gave it the green light because the owner needed time to figure out how to address customers’ concerns about catching the novel coronavirus in the bathroom. …
The theater reopened over the weekend with extra employees to disinfect the bathrooms every 30 minutes and limits on queuing up.
Before pooh-poohing these concerns (sorry!), the Post’s Marc Fisher reminds us that Americans already have a significant reluctance to use public restrooms. These days, their concerns have more merit. The COVID-19 virus can be detected in stool for up to a month after first exposure, which may not seem relevant except that flushing toilets typically send up an aerosol of droplets from the bowl’s contents as high as six feet up. That doesn’t even account for the seats on which those land, not to mention all of the other surfaces that come into common contact. Even a fully automated restroom will have significant disincentives for use in a pandemic.
That will undoubtedly complicate efforts to reopen the economy. Those who already feel reluctant will feel even more so, especially after their first experience of needing a bathroom while in a public place. Even the more adventurous will likely plan around those contingencies by factoring in shorter trips or at least more frequent returns home. Most of us will recall the conditions of mostpublic restrooms prior to the pandemic and make plans that don’t involve more than an hour or two of time away from home sweet home. That will mean less economic activity no matter what else happens, unless and until a vaccine or effective treatment emerges.
This gets to a factor that policymakers can’t plan around — public confidence. Restrictions should get rolled back soon so that people can make these decisions for themselves, but make no mistake that decisions will be made on re-engagement. Rebuilding confidence in the public square and public health will be a long, slow process, and it will have unexpected obstacles along the way. The public toilet will definitely be one of those, but so will HVAC systems that recirculate air, dressing rooms in clothing stores, and so on.
In other words: Don’t expect a full recovery until people know they have somewhere to go, IYKWIMAITYD.