The Nolan family rarely ventured out of their Palm Harbor home for most of the pandemic. When they did leave to run errands, it was never far from home.
So it wasn’t until Trevor and Renee Nolan were planning a road trip to Georgia and North Carolina with their dog and two kids that the question emerged: What should we do about using public restrooms?
“Even for guys, going outside still seems kind of barbaric and kind of illegal,” Trevor Nolan said. “God forbid you get an indecent exposure charge and become a sexual offender just because you didn’t want to go into a public bathroom.”
Like it has done to every other mundane aspect of life, the pandemic has made using a public bathroom more complicated. In June, a study found that the churning of a toilet flush can propel a cloud of aerosol droplets nearly 3 feet high. According to the New York Times, simulations showed the toilet plume whooshing around coronavirus particles present in stool and in the surrounding air.
So now Floridians are bumping up against a set of new challenges: Anxiety over touching germy toilet seats. Small bathrooms that make it hard to practice social distancing. Enjoying the great outdoors or reopened businesses only to find out too late that some restrooms have been closed.
Trevor Nolan turned to Amazon for a travel urinal, a portable gadget he’d heard about during a Howard Stern interview with truck drivers. It cost him about $7 for a two-pack.
The family avoided going inside rest stops when getting gas and hit drive-thrus for their meals. When it was time to relieve themselves, they pulled out the travel urinal, a plastic bottle with a wide opening and an expandable accordion neck.
“It was much easier for the males,” Trevor said. “There was a lot of holding up blankets and towels to shield other people in the car and give a little sense of privacy.”
“I probably wouldn’t do it again,” said Renee, who threw the travel urinal in the trash upon returning home.
The Tampa Bay Times was curious about how others are approaching the bathroom obstacle. We asked readers to fill out a survey online and in our Instagram Story. Responses came in from 769 people in the Tampa Bay area. About 53 percent of participants said they felt safe using public restrooms. And 24 percent have resorted to going to the bathroom outside at some point during the pandemic.
Here’s how the pandemic is changing the way readers are handling public bathrooms, plus some advice from Tampa Bay Times journalists.
If you feel safe, why? If not, what concerns you most?
- “Public restrooms are notoriously nasty. I don’t expect anything different during the pandemic.” — Sheila Allen, Riverview
- “I’m not comfortable leaving my house. I can’t even think of touching a public restroom.” — @jazzymiami via Instagram
- “You just don’t know who’s been in them.” — @lisageo17 via Instagram
- “They are cleaner now than they’ve ever been!” — @keri.cline via Instagram
- “Public restrooms are always dirty ... at least I’m wearing a mask to cover the smells now.” — @savcuttitta via Instagram
What is the strangest place you’ve gone to the bathroom during the pandemic?
- “In a state park behind the public restroom (on the wall) because it was closed due to COVID.” — @andrew.h.wicker via Instagram
- “A park under some trees; a toddler car potty.” — @elumpkins via Instagram
- “We bought an RV and on long road trips, we will not have to use any public restrooms. We are both 70 years old. We want to still travel but we are not comfortable in areas we now have no control over.” — Shirley Sitki and her husband Bruce, Tampa
- “My ex’s.” — @redsonjalee via Instagram
- “My kids use trees.” — @familycargobikego via Instagram
- “Turning off onto a dirt road and going in front of a curious group of goats!” — @prrrianka via Instagram
What advice do you have for your fellow public bathroom-seekers?
- “I’m on the road far too much, so I have very hot takes on interstate bathrooms. My general rule is even more important right now: When possible, stop at either a Pilot/ Flying J or Busy Bee. They’re always clean. The Busy Bee off I-10 (Exit 283) is the best gas station in the state with the cleanest restrooms around, too, although no changing facilities if you have a kid in diapers.” — Matt Baker, Times College Sports reporter
- “Best place to pee on any road trip is McDonald’s. The are everywhere, they are usually clean. (‘One key to McDonald’s turnaround that began way back in 2002 was former CEO Jim Cantalupo’s obsession with clean restaurants that had equally clean restrooms,‘ according to USA Today.) They don’t hassle you, usually there’s a side door right near the restroom, and you can get some fries.” — Christopher Spata, Times Culture reporter
- “Don’t worry so much. Be careful. The virus is much easier spread through droplets than surfaces. Just don’t stay in there long and wash hands thoroughly.” — Naomi Vichich, Tierra Verde
- “For females use a great new product that I’ve found online called the ‘Tinkle Belle.’ It’s a female urination device accessory that allows women to stand up while fully clothed.” — Shirley, Tampa
- “As a nurse, I have always maintained a ‘no touch of handles’ rule. I grab paper towels (or have my own wet wipes with me) as I head into a stall. When I’m done, I flush using my sneakered foot or with a paper towel. I open a stall with paper towels. I wash my hands at the sink then back out of the door using my back and buttocks to push open the door. If I have to pull a handle to leave, I do so with yet another paper towel or wet wipe. I did this prior to the pandemic and continue to do so. If it is feasible to avoid public bathrooms, do so.” — Cher Tushiah, Hudson
- “I was surprised by how clean the 7-Eleven bathroom was during my trip to Miami-Dade last week, and some other gas stations also have their bathrooms open. Publix always. And the side of the road is underrated ... I ALWAYS wear a dress on road trips. Always always always.” — Rose Wong, NOW Desk intern
Engagement producer Bernadette Berdychowski contributed to this report.