78°F
weather icon Clear

As public restrooms reopen, how safe are they from coronavirus?

Updated June 3, 2020 - 3:43 pm

You do what you can.

Staying home as much as possible, and wearing a mask when you can’t.

Then you hear reports that, with businesses reopening, any toilet flush inside a public restroom could prove fatal, and the thought alone just might be enough to break you.

Public bathrooms are rarely a picnic. But fecal matter and COVID-19 being carried about by aerosolized toilet water? That’s the sort of thing Ian Ziering should be fighting with a chainsaw.

Before you start hoarding adult diapers and swearing off those facilities for good, though, take heart.

“I don’t think I’d be any more worried about public restrooms than I was before this outbreak,” epidemiologist Brian Labus said.

Rethinking the restroom

Toilet plumes, the spray that results from a high-pressure flush, and their ability to spread fecal material and viral particles are nothing new.

C.U. Jessen reported in 1955 that microbes could linger in the air for as long as eight minutes following a toilet flush. New York University microbiologist Philip Tierno made horrifying headlines in 2016 when he declared toilet plumes could reach a height of 15 feet.

Worries about those plumes are making the rounds again because, depending on the news cycle, seemingly any and every encounter could lead to a coronavirus infection.

“There haven’t been any definitive cases of transmission in that way,” said Tim Pyle, executive director of the American Restroom Association. “But when people start thinking about public restrooms and the splash effect of forceful flushing and what that means for water particles, even before COVID-19 people wouldn’t feel too comfortable about that.”

The nonprofit group advocates for safe, well-designed public bathrooms. Ideally, Pyle said, America would begin transitioning to the single-toilet, fully enclosed water closets commonly found in Europe. Until then, the association recommends blocking off certain urinals to allow for social distancing, as well as the use of toilet covers.

“If you have a lid on it,” Pyle said, “it’s definitely going to prevent that spread.”

The solution isn’t as simple as adding covers to all public toilets, though. It can’t be. If the current mask brouhaha is any indication, toilet lids would become just another social flash point. Many Americans would no doubt risk a face full of corona-poo rather than lower a toilet lid before they flush, because freedom.

Or they just wouldn’t flush at all.

Toilet covers aren’t a realistic cure-all, said Labus, the UNLV professor who spent 15 years as a senior investigator for the Southern Nevada Health District.

“Of course, it’s going to spray all over the inside of that lid, and the first thing (the next person is) going to do is grab the lid and lift it up. There’s trade-offs there. There’s no perfect answer. If we had a toilet design that was simple and would take care of these things, it’s what we’d use everywhere.”

In theory, a self-cleaning toilet that automatically raises and lowers its lid, like the ones Kohler and Toto have showcased at CES, would be ideal. But those start at around $2,000 and top out at $17,300.

Casino owners learned from the past

The American Restroom Association and local health officials advise against bathroom overcrowding.

“The Southern Nevada Health District recommends that establishments take steps to ensure social distancing recommendations are followed in public restrooms and that these facilities are cleaned and disinfected regularly using an EPA-registered disinfectant,” spokeswoman Jennifer Sizemore wrote in an email.

Nearly every casino operator in its reopening guidelines mentions increased cleaning and disinfecting of its bathrooms. Wynn announced the additional step of regular ultraviolet-light disinfection in large restrooms throughout the property. None of the released guidelines mentions social distancing inside those facilities.

But many casinos already were ahead of the safety curve. A couple of high-profile norovirus outbreaks on Fremont Street and on the Strip in 2003 and 2004 caused casino owners to rethink their bathroom layouts, Labus said. Think of the automatic flushing, faucets and paper towel dispensers, as well as restroom entrances that lack closing doors.

“Some of these disease prevention steps have been designed into our facilities long before we even knew what coronavirus was,” he said.

Those paper towel dispensers are key, by the way. As much as some of us would like to keep all that refuse out of landfills by using air dryers, that would mean skipping a critical step in proper anti-coronavirus hygiene.

“Part of hand-washing is using the paper towel,” Labus noted. “The friction from that is taking that last bit of stuff off your hands and putting it in the trash.”

Ways to limit the spread

When asked how worried we should be about the risks of contracting coronavirus in public restrooms, microbiologist and UNLV professor Brian Hedlund admitted, “I don’t know if we know enough.

“Globally, there really aren’t that many people who study coronaviruses,” he continued, “so we just don’t have a great history of knowledge about coronaviruses. So I think that’s part of the problem. Everybody’s scrambling now.”

Still, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself, just in case.

“If there’s no lid, flush and turn around or flush and don’t breathe that aerosol in,” Hedlund advised.

As in any other environment, he said, minimize hand-to-face contact, wash your hands with a good lather, and practice social distancing.

“I suspect that the line going to the bathroom and then the line going to the stall or urinal and then the line to the sink is probably a more significant thing,” Hedlund said, noting that COVID-19 is mostly transmitted through person-to-person contact.

“It’s not really a major concern,” Labus concluded about whatever’s lurking inside a public commode. “I won’t say that anything isn’t theoretically possible, but I’d be more concerned about somebody who’s sick and they’re coughing and they’re talking and the virus is coming out of their mouth. … Not so much what gets aerosolized on the toilet.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Entertainment Videos
'In the Dark' at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum - Video
Laurie Thomas, controller for the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, discusses the new exhibit, "In the Dark," in Las Vegas on Thursday, July 9, 2020. (Elizabeth Page Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Summertime Dole Whip Cocktails
Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beer at The Venetian has two new Dole Whip cocktails. The Golden Tiki, which offers a line of Dole Whip cocktails, is reopening Wednesday.
Lin-Manuel Miranda says 'Hamilton' criticism is 'fair game'
Lin-Manuel Miranda has responded to people claiming he presented an idealized version of the Founding Fathers. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Charlie Daniels, 'Devil Went Down to Georgia' singer, dead at 83 - Video
Charlie Daniels, the country music star, was struck by a hemorrhagic stroke in Hermitage, Tennessee. His death was confirmed on Monday. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Jennifer Romas takes her 'Sexxy The Show' to Dreamland Drive-In - Video
Jennifer Romas, producer, director, choreographer and star “Sexxy The Show" at Westgate took her show to Dreamland Drive-In at FreshWata Studios in Las Vegas. The show, which is currently dark at the Westgate, is a benefit for charities Golden Rainbow of Southern Nevada, The Actors Fund and Pawtastic Friends. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Wynn Las Vegas’ ‘re-imagined’ buffet - VIDEO
On June 18, The Buffet at Wynn reopened to customers with what the resort called “a re-imagined all-you-can-eat concept that combines the abundance of the traditional buffet with the benefits of a full-service restaurant.” (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Jimmy Kimmel issues public apology for past blackface sketches - Video
On Tuesday, late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel took to Twitter to apologize for his blackface impression of NBA star Karl Malone. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Kurt Cobain's MTV Unplugged guitar sold for record-breaking $6M - Video
The 1959 Martin D-18E, which was often out of tune, was expected to fetch between $1million and $2 million. The iconic guitar was sold during the online 'Music Icons' sale hosted by Julien's Auctions over the weekend. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Joel Schumacher, director of 'Lost Boys' and Batman films, dead at 80 - Video
Schumacher died in New York City after battling cancer for a year. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
'We are not a monolith' - Video
Lance Smith, a multidisciplinary artist, talks about how black artists should be acknowledged for their work and not tokenized or only have their work connected to trauma. "Blackness, we are not a monolith, we deserve to live and create in a world that respects us as we are." (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Amid protests and pandemic, black artists view works as means to empathy, healing - Video
Erica Vital-Lazare is an artist, writer, sometimes activist and professor at the College of Southern Nevada. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
PodKats! with Ross Mollison
On this edition of PodKats! Review-Journal columnist John Katsilometes is joined by the founder of Spiegelworld and producer of Las Vegas Strip shows such as "Absinthe," and "Opium," Ross Mollison.
Paramount pulls 'Cops' series in wake of protests - Video
Paramount Network recently confirmed their decision to cancel the long-running reality show, "Cops." (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Restaurants add COVID-19 surcharge - Video
Some Las Vegas Strip restaurants are adding a COVID-19 surcharge to their bills to help offset the additional costs of reopening. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Kats hangs at Mayfair Supper Club as Bellagio reopens
Las Vegas Review-Journal man-about-town columnist John Katsilometes visits The Mayfair Supper Club at the Bellagio on the Strip in Las Vegas on the first night after reopening Thursday, June 4, 2020. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Las Vegas performers adapt to pandemic restrictions - Video
The coronavirus pandemic has forced creative people in Las Vegas, a city that thrives on live performance, to adapt to new or changed ways to entertain. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas woman brings Blue Angel to life - Video
When Las Vegas shut down during the coronavirus pandemic, Victoria Hogan created the Blue Angel costume and performance, emulating the statue locals know and love in order to connect with others in a time when connection isn’t as possible. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
‘Hamilton’ postponed as Smith Center remains dark indefinitely - VIDEO
The hit musical 'Hamilton' was supposed to run from September through October at The Smith Center’s Reynolds Hall has been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons rides a bicycle on the Strip with Kats
Las Vegas resident and ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons rides down the Strip with his wife Gilligan Stillwater GIbbons and Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John Katsilometes Wednesday, May 20, 2020. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons rides a bicycle on the Las Vegas Strip with Kats - Video
Las Vegas resident and ZZ Top frontman Billy Gibbons rides down the Strip with his wife, Gilligan Stillwater Gibbons, and Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John Katsilometes on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Ex-WWE star Shad Gaspard found dead on beach - Video
Shad Gaspard, 39, the former WWE wrestler, was found dead Wednesday morning on the shoreline of Venice Beach in California. Gaspard went missing over the weekend. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Buffets won’t reopen soon, but they may return eventually - VIDEO
In a Tuesday earnings call, Frank Fertitta III, CEO of Station Casinos parent company Red Rock Resorts, said buffets won’t be among the amenities included in the early stages of the resorts’ reopenings. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
'Hamilton' to debut on Disney+ in July - Video
The film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s popular musical was originally set for theatrical release in October. The musical’s director, Tommy Kail, shot three live performances featuring the original Broadway cast. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Little Richard dead at 87 - VIDEO
Little Richard, the pioneer and rock 'n' roll originator, died on Saturday, May 9. His son, Danny Penniman, confirmed the news but the cause of death is unknown. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Jerry Stiller, actor and comedian, dies at 92 - VIDEO
Jerry Stiller's son, actor and director Ben Stiller, announced his father's death via Twitter. Jerry Stiller became widely known with a recurring role on "Seinfeld" as Frank Costanza, George's hot-headed father. He also starred on "King of Queens." (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Wolfgang Puck's Players Locker opens in Downtown Summerlin along with others - VIDEO
Under the governor's orders a few restaurants were able to open their dining rooms in Downtown Summerlin Saturday, May 9. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nicolas Cage to portray Joe Exotic in ‘Tiger King’ TV adaption - VIDEO
Nicolas Cage is headed to television to take on the role of Joe Exotic, the iconic character from the Netflix docuseries "Tiger King." (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Quarantined! 'The Ghost Adventures' miniseries by Zak Bagans - VIDEO
The four-part miniseries “Ghost Adventures: Quarantine” by Zak Bagans will debut in June on the Travel Channel. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
10 facts about Cinco de Mayo - VIDEO
The holiday celebrates the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Mexico began the holiday in 1862, but does not recognize it nationally anymore. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Kristin Cavallari has already filed for divorce - VIDEO
Kristin Cavallari, the "Very Cavallari" star, announced she and her husband, former NFL quarterback Jay Cutler, have separated after seven years of marriage and 10 years together. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
THE LATEST