By Pauline Kerr
Mixed messages, especially from government, are nothing new.
Some of us remember wondering how it was mathematically possible to “get more for less” when education budgets were slashed a couple of decades back. Any kindergarten graduate knows if you have 10 apple slices and the schoolyard bully takes two, you have eight left, not 12.
Government officials are still using that more-for-less equation, and it makes no more sense now than it did before.
Then there is the Freedom of Information Act, which seems to be used mostly to prevent the press and others from getting information.
COVID-19 has brought us several new examples of double-speak – social distancing, for example. There is nothing social about it. In fact, it is anti-social. No hugs, kisses or even a hand-shake are allowed, and one must remain far enough from people to make all but the most superficial conversation feel weird. In our culture, we surround ourselves with various-sized invisible bubbles. One is about an arm’s length and is reserved for family and close friends. A two-metre distance clearly permits no touching and is about the distance where one would stand to comment on the weather to a stranger. Awkward indeed.
And then there is “allowed to open.” It can mean any number of things, from credit card purchases only and merchandise placed on the curb, to customers/clients being allowed inside as long as they keep some distance between themselves and others, to doors may open after massive list of “appropriate precautions” are taken.
Apparently, appropriate precautions include keeping public washrooms closed.
It is almost as if the province wants to be able to say all kinds of places are open for business, while effectively maintaining the lock-down. Having washrooms closed seems to be a subtle but ever-so-efficient way of keeping people at home.
Where it was once possible to visit several retailers during an afternoon’s shopping junket, today’s COVID-19 prevention measures – lineups, one-way aisles, limited numbers, appointments, masks and gloves – take a lot of extra time. A shopper might make it to one or two places, and it is a safe bet that stopping for a nice, large cup of coffee or a soft drink will not be part of the plan. Adult diapers or a walk in the woods might be, depending on the community, availability of wooded areas, and personal inhibitions.
The washroom situation is awkward for shoppers, but it must be a nightmare for people who depend on public washrooms in the course of their work – taxi drivers, for example, as well as delivery people, letter carriers, truck drivers, and even police officers.
As for portable toilets – any port in a storm. Most of them do not come equipped with sinks and soap for that all-important anti-COVID ritual of hand-washing, though, which raises questions about keeping conventional washrooms, with running water and soap dispensers, closed for health and safety reasons.
If public washrooms are the filthy, germ-covered places prim older ladies used to warn little girls about, why would any of us use them at any time? Perhaps it is time to place a higher priority on keeping public washrooms clean.
It might be time to look at what other countries are doing. Some of us have no doubt read about a marvelous pay toilet that steam-cleans itself after every use. Would we pay a loonie or two to be able to use a really clean public washroom? The answer a couple of months ago would probably have been no, but times change.
At the very least, we need to investigate public washroom design, and look at ways to make them easier to keep clean – and prevent people from stealing containers of disinfectant wipes.
We also need to acknowledge the humble public washroom has an important role to play in encouraging shoppers to spend time and money at their favourite downtown shops. Depending on restaurants and retail stores to provide this service may have worked before the pandemic, but it is not working now.