After two vodka lemonades drunk out of big paper cups on a street corner in Williamsburg in late May, my friend (who we’ll call Megan) really had to pee. The bar where we got the vodka lemonades was serving drinks from a makeshift takeout window, like lots of other places started doing during the pandemic. I knew there were two perfectly good toilets were inside, just 20 feet away. But the bar’s big front doors were locked.
Megan was really starting to potty-dance around, so I hopped on my bike to see if the public restrooms at the closest park, Domino (a privately operated park that isn’t run by the city), were open. The doors there were locked, too, despite the park itself being full of people lounging around in their little social distancing circles. None of the bars or restaurants nearby were open, aside from their takeout windows. If businesses are going to be open enough that we can use their services, but so closed we can’t use the bathrooms, I have to ask: Where are we all going to pee?
Typically, pseudo-public bathrooms—like in the country’s countless Starbucks locations—help field the public’s need to pee (really: public urination citations go down). But for states in stages of reopening, it’s not clear whether any business has to let anyone use their bathrooms, and even public bathrooms that are open are overwhelmed. That means, as we face processing the pent-up excitement of people who haven’t been able to go out and do things for several months, we may be facing a deluge of piss that has nowhere to go, except… well…
On Monday, New York City moved into Phase 2 of its reopening plan, which allows, among other things, bars and restaurants to resume outdoor dining. Many cities, including New York, regulate the availability of bathrooms: By city law, any bar or restaurant with 20 or more seats has to provide at least one bathroom to customers. Other cities have similar bathroom occupancy laws; in Los Angeles, small buildings constructed after 2004 aren’t required to offer restrooms, but are required to have signage that clearly states their lack of facilities.
But the reopening plan doesn’t clearly say whether reopened restaurants and bars with fewer than 20 outdoor seats scattered around parking spaces and sidewalks, or 20 seats inside that no one is allowed to use, are required to provide bathrooms to customers. For now, it seems left to the discretion of each business.
Even if businesses allow bathroom use, bathrooms’ sheer design goes against everything we know we shouldn’t do in order to avoid coronavirus infection. Sure, you can wash your hands, and little walled bathroom stalls are useful as a blockade for disease-carrying respiratory droplets. But they are small enclosed rooms with high-touch surfaces like flush handles, door locks, and knobs, and sink faucets. Standing at a potentially crowded row of sinks while everyone washes their hands for 20 seconds undoes the safety precautions of social distancing. Not to mention the apparent biohazard of flushing, which can reportedly “fling coronavirus aerosols all over,” according to a study published last week in Physics of Fluid.
If business’ bathrooms remain closed, we have only public bathrooms to rely on. Public bathrooms, which are a necessity for unhoused people, are currently open in every major U.S. city. But with parks full of people flocking to the outdoors for all their masked and social distancing-approved socializing, public bathroom lines have become extremely long.
“Everyone I know is running into this problem every weekend,” Max, who lives in New York City and didn’t want to be identified, for privacy reasons, told VICE. “Public bathrooms are not an option, the lines are too long; my friend waited in line for like 30 minutes to pee at McCarren Park [in Greenpoint] the other day. I got out of line after ten minutes and peed near some warehouse a few blocks away, when I came back, she was still waiting.”
So unless you can freely and easily pee behind a bush (technically, a “crime”), the degree to which you’re able to hang out outside this summer is limited, now more than ever, by your ability to hold it. Or perhaps by your willingness to simply pee your pants.
Alex, who lives in Brooklyn and didn’t want to be identified, for privacy reasons, misjudged her bladder’s capacity. After she was turned away from using the bathroom at a Walgreens, Alex “tried to hold it.”
“I squatted to sit on the heel of my foot, trying to will the piss away, I kept walking up and down the aisles, whatever to make the pee not come out,” she told VICE. “Then I’m waiting in line, and, fully, the piss came out. The entire butt of my shorts were soaked like a denim diaper. Having to hand the cashier my card, looking her in the eye while my pants were full of pee, was just a really low moment.”
On another day out drinking with a friend in Brooklyn, Alex said a bartender in Fort Greene let them inside to pee after they asked. Cami, a bartender at a few bars around Brooklyn, said she’s happy to let people inside to pee when she’s working, but her bosses don’t necessarily know, and it’s not an official policy of the bars where she works.
“I’ve always been really lenient with letting people—even people who aren’t customers—use the bathroom,” said Cami, a bartender at several bars around Brooklyn, who didn’t want to be identified, for privacy reasons. “We’re a neighborhood bar and it’s the decent thing to do, in my opinion. As long as people wear a mask and don’t come in large groups, and considering research about the lower risk of the virus spreading on surfaces, I’m happy to let people use our facilities when I’m behind the bar!”
Cami added that the only directive her bosses gave, if she lets anyone in to use the bathroom, was to let them through a side door, rather than the street-facing entrance, if they need to use the bathroom. “It’s optics at that point, which I understand,” she said. The result is a speakeasy situation, for going pee.
VICE emailed a handful of bars that offered takeout drinks during the pandemic to ask about their current bathroom policies. An employee with Iona, a bar in Williamsburg, said they’ll allow a single person in at a time to use the bathroom.
Branded Saloon, a bar in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood, adopted an extremely generous bathroom policy in support of Black Lives Matter protests that frequently march by. “One of our clientele, who have been supporting us through this pandemic, were involved in putting together a Black Lives Matter march, and we assured her we would continue to allow marchers to use our facilities,” Gerard Kouwenhoven, co-owner of Branded Saloon, said via email. He added that the bar’s bathrooms are frequently cleaned, and only three people are allowed in at a time, to use the bar’s three available restrooms.
With months left of summer and unknown amounts of time left in this pandemic, some sort of broad solution for managing the urge to pee while spending the rest of the season outside is needed. Perhaps more public restrooms, which have year round utility, would solve the issue. Or bringing in more of those fancy portable toilet trucks, like the ones that were closed at Domino Park on that afternoon in late May.
Until we get some sort of official policy response on where, precisely, we’re supposed to go to the bathroom while patronizing all these halfway open businesses, maybe the only thing we can do is agree that peeing outside is acceptable now. Your move, politicians who are ordering states to reopen.
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