Metropolis

The Road to Reopening America Runs Through the Bathroom

We can’t have a functioning society again if we don’t trust public toilets.

Two urinals, one taped off for social distancing.
The men’s restroom at Allen Premium Outlets in Allen, Texas, on Friday. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

In the past few months, Americans have discovered the astonishing variety of things that can happen in a parking lot. Teach a seminar? Yes. Get married? Yes. Go to church? Amen.

This may not surprise anyone who has been to a college football tailgate, which proves that only your imagination can limit what happens in the parking lot. But there is one way that we cannot turn America into one big tailgate while we wait out the pandemic: We are not going to spend the summer peeing outside.

The car is pretty good at social distancing, but don’t mistake car culture for a coronavirus cure. Even drivers have to go. The primary confined space that Americans uneasily share with strangers isn’t mass transit. It’s the public bathroom.

Bathrooms occupy a weird place in American life: They are at once an infectious chokepoint on the road to a functioning society and our only everyday infrastructure of good public health. As we reenter public spaces this summer, are we supposed to bolt bathrooms because we fear they will spread the disease, or open them so that people can wash their hands?

At the moment, any trip out in the city will remind you of the idea popularized by the urban planner Clara Greed: the bladder’s leash. The leash is pretty short, because there is nowhere to pee. Semiopen businesses have bathrooms, of course, but access is subject to even more negotiation and judgment than usual.

The bladder’s leash was already a fact of everyday life for some workers, including street vendors and New York City cab drivers, who have blamed the city’s lack of public restrooms for their parking tickets, dehydration, and incidence of diabetes. It is, like so many things about city design, worse for women.

Last week, Slate’s Mary Harris interviewed Christopher Escobar, who owns an art house movie theater in Atlanta. Escobar has cleverly appropriated his parking lot for drive-in movies and encourages moviegoers to patronize local restaurants before they arrive. As for the bathroom, he said, “We’ll encourage people to use the bathrooms before they come in.”

That’s not going to work for The Irishman, at 3½ hours, and it’s definitely not going to scale. Waffle House, which is seating patrons according to social distancing guidelines in reopened states, has single-use bathrooms. The company has “added enhanced sanitation protocols,” Waffle House director of public relations Njeri Boss told me. By this she means: Employees are supposed to clean the bathroom more frequently.

Landlords, property managers, and tenants are thinking hard about this issue. Euripides Pelekanos, the CEO of the chain Bareburger, told me to look out for three big changes in bathrooms at his restaurants when they reopen: touchless everything, frequent cleaning, and sanitizer outside the bathroom. Air-stirring hand dryers are likely to be furloughed for some time. In multistall bathrooms, every other toilet may be closed to enforce capacity restrictions (already underway in some Chinese workplaces) and maintain distance. A trade-off presents itself: An every-other-toilet system puts you farther away from other bathroom users, but also increases the ratio of users per toilet. And as malls and offices start to fill up, you risk a capacity crunch. For the fellows, the pandemic may be what finally puts partitions between every urinal.

Bathrooms are also the only place most Americans can wash their hands, which is a key step in coronavirus prevention. At the Villa Savoye, the modernist “machine for living” that Le Corbusier designed outside of Paris in 1929, a stand-alone sink in the front hall marks the forgotten architectural obsession with hygiene. These days, the only thing less sanitary than a public bathroom is not having one, which is one reason that contractors say construction sites are not, despite the open air, coronavirus-resistant workplaces.

On the whole, bathrooms get neither attention from architects nor investment from a nervous public. “Freud, poo-poo, you don’t have to work hard to learn where the anxiety comes from,” says the sociologist Harvey Molotch, co-editor of the 2010 volume Toilet. Fear of vagrants, drugs, sex, and crime (or some combination therein) has greatly diminished our toilet infrastructure. The New York City subway once had more than 1,600 toilets; today it has just a few dozen for more than 5 million daily riders. Poor people with long commutes, women, and older people are the ones who feel the sharpest tug of the bladder’s leash. (Young men are so willing to pee anywhere that their urine has eaten away at the foundations of the National Gallery in London and a soccer stadium in Brazil.)

More recently, the opioid crisis has prompted a new toilet panic, as bookstores, coffee shops, and other “third spaces” rush to install code-locked bathrooms to discourage heroin users. For American men, Molotch adds, bathrooms are ruled by a silence of homophobic anxiety, which robs them of the friendly banter that characterizes other bathroom experiences.

The fear of disease, in particular, has had a long influence on bathroom design and creation. London physician John Snow founded the field of public health by mapping cholera outbreaks to a well contaminated by human and animal waste. Since the 19th century, public health crises have prompted officials to build more fountains, toilets, and sinks. Frank Lloyd Wright forced us all to look at each other’s shoes in the can because shin-high stalls made it easier to clean the floor. (And, now, easier to watch for misbehavior.) White walls, tiles, and porcelain fixtures all made bathrooms brighter, and brightness was associated with cleanliness.

It’s not that the bathroom poses a more serious coronavirus risk than anything else you’re doing. (Workplace consultants believe the bottleneck on the return to downtown offices will be elevators.) But it does serve as a reminder that what we’re really talking about, when we talk about density as a factor in disease transmission, is particular spaces that a number of people have to share.

This slipperiness of the term density is what allows lazy op-ed writers to group together New York City and South Dakota meatpacking towns in the same group of coronavirus hot spots with a common character. Density is really a measure of persons in a given space. To use it in a comparison, you have to keep the denominator the same, or it starts to look like my living room is denser than Manhattan when we watch a movie.

What meatpacking plants have in common with hard-hit New York neighborhoods is people sharing confined spaces such as bathrooms. (Interestingly, of the 15 biggest U.S. metro areas, the three with the highest share of one-bathroom housing units are the coronavirus-ravaged cities of New York, Boston, and Detroit, according to the 2017 American Housing Survey.) Meatpacking plants are a reminder that even in low-density places, people come together to share space. So are churches. And in all those places, people who come together will share bathrooms. The average office worker, according to a California water use textbook, flushes the toilet between two and 3½ times a day. About half of restaurant visitors use the facilities.

Whether in Sioux Falls or in Queens, bathrooms may play a role in transmission. Elsewhere, they’ll play a role in prevention. Either way, the reopening of society only goes as far as our confidence in the spaces we share. Bathrooms are at the top of the list. That America has so few public restrooms, and the few we have are so poorly maintained (see Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s wonderful description of New York City’s “fecal grotto”) is thanks to the same starved public sector that is unable to roll out the more complex public hygiene measures that a pandemic demands. Bathrooms need to be safe, but they also need to feel safe. Otherwise, all of America is on the bladder’s leash, and the leash is short.