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Do you remember the last time you used a public bathroom?
As governments reopen additional sectors of the economy, more people will be outside their homes for extended periods of time — and they may have no choice but to use the toilet at a park, office, or restaurant. After all, when you gotta go, you gotta go.
But, with the novel coronavirus still spreading throughout the country, is it safe to use public restrooms?
BuzzFeed News asked several infectious disease doctors, scientists, and public health experts whether they’d be comfortable using toilets outside their homes and other questions about the dos and don’ts of going potty in public during the pandemic.
In short, wherever you decide to pee or poo, please clean up after yourself and WASH👏 YOUR👏 HANDS.👏
Is it safe to use public restrooms during the pandemic?
As we all know, public bathrooms can be gross, but the chance of getting COVID-19 there is probably low. The virus can be transmitted by touching contaminated surfaces, but the more common mode of transmission is through respiratory droplets, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The coronavirus isn’t spreading around the world in public bathrooms,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “That’s not how this virus is infecting people and causing worldwide calamity.”
Adalja said he personally wouldn’t hesitate to use a public bathroom right now, but, as with any activity during a pandemic, there is always a risk.
Ideally, people should use the bathroom before they leave their homes — but when you are out and about and need to go, there are several things you can do to reduce the risk of transmitting an infectious disease, whether it’s COVID-19 or something else.
“You’re basically kind of going in, to use a cute term, ‘a bioweapons factory’ — so there is no safe. There’s only things you can do to mitigate risk,” said Dr. Greg Poland, a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the Mayo Clinic.
As with other common spaces, people should touch as little as possible and wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds. Poland said it’s best to use a paper towel to turn the faucet off and open the door because studies have shown those surfaces harbor fecal bacteria.
Robin Patel, president of the American Society for Microbiology, said it’s also a good idea to carry hand sanitizer with you in case the restroom is out of handwashing supplies.
Patel also suggested waiting for others to leave the bathroom before going inside.
“Before going into public restrooms, you may want to wait until no one else is inside; if others are there, you should try to stay at least 6 feet from them,” she said.
Should I use a disposable seat cover or clean the seat with a disinfectant wipe before I sit?
Not all public bathrooms have disposable paper seat covers, and, at least in this reporter’s experience, when they are available, they often run out. But are they a necessity in these times?
Most experts who talked to BuzzFeed News said no, because the coronavirus, which causes respiratory disease, is not transmitted through the skin. It’s transmitted via the mouth, nose, and eyes.
The odds of catching the coronavirus from a toilet seat are incredibly low, according to Rosie Redfield, a microbiologist and professor in the University of British Columbia’s Department of Zoology.
“First, an infected person has to somehow get virus particles on their butt, and then the particles to be transferred from the skin to the toilet seat. And then some of them have to be transferred from the seat to your butt, and then some of them from your butt to your hands, and then from your hands to your face,” Redfield told BuzzFeed News. “There are many more important things to worry about, like whether your face mask fits well enough to do its job.”
Still, there’s no harm in using the seat covers or in wiping down the toilet seat with a disinfectant wipe — just don’t throw that into the toilet, please.
If the toilet seat is visibly unclean, you may want to find another one or just wipe it off with toilet paper.
Is it OK to flush the toilet with your bare hand?
As already mentioned, one way to minimize the risk of coming into contact with a virus or bacteria is to avoid touching things as much as possible, but experts were split on whether you should avoid touching the toilet flusher.
Poland said some people flush the toilet with their foot, but they could just be making the lever dirtier for the next person because of the bacteria, viral particles, and urine their shoe may have picked up from the bathroom floor.
“Let’s say a kid that doesn’t know better when they go to flush the toilet — what do you think they touch?” he said.
Adalja said he’d still use his hand to flush, but others said they would touch the flusher with toilet paper in their hand.
“The less contact with touch surfaces the better,” Dr. Richard Jackson, a professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said in an email. “No proof that this would work on COVID, but why not?”
Gerardo Chowell, a professor of epidemiology with Georgia State University’s School of Public Health, also recommended putting the seat lid down before flushing to limit particles blasting through the air.
What’s the best way to dry your hands?
While environmentally friendly, hand dryers have been shown to blast fecal bacteria in the air. Experts agreed that it’s better to use a paper towel.
“The forced air dryers … very effectively blow whatever is on your hands around the bathroom and back into your face,” Poland said.
Recent research has found that the virus that causes COVID-19 does appear in the urine and fecal matter of people infected with the disease. Although the research has shown that the virus in human waste has the potential to be infectious, it’s not yet clear whether someone could actually get infected from the virus in feces.
What should businesses and local governments do to keep bathrooms safe?
Businesses and local governments should keep bathrooms open and ensure that they are regularly sanitized, well stocked, and that the toilets remain functional, experts said.
They should also strive to make the facilities as touchless as possible with motion-sensor sinks and soap dispensers, as well as entrances that don’t require people to push or pull open a door (think of open entrances to bathrooms at airports and sports stadiums).
Businesses could also tape off every other urinal or sink and limit the number of people who can use the restroom at any given time to promote social distancing.