SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Toilet tissue has been an issue since the start of the pandemic, and now toilets are. As stay-at-home restrictions are lifting, many people feel a long-pent-up urge, if you please, to go out. What's stopping them may be the urge to go, as in to the bathroom. Even if they can find one that's open, many people are loathe to risk a public restroom, and that limits how often and how far they can venture out. But as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, others are getting creative.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Shu Sanatani, a doctor in Vancouver, never used to think twice before going for his usual two-hour run. Now he's become kind of obsessed.
SHU SANATANI: It's the anticipation of what if I do have to go to the bathroom? Do I have to go to the bathroom? Uh-oh. Now I'm thinking about going to the bathroom, and I feel like I have to go to the bathroom.
SMITH: Just days ago, his worst fears came to be. He really did have to go. He ran by countless businesses that were closed before he finally found an open car mechanic, but they wouldn't let him in.
SANATANI: The panic grows (laughter) as the third or fourth options exhaust themselves.
SMITH: He was considering just going outside, then changed his route and found a hospital that did let him in. But for many people, even an open restroom is little comfort. Sixty-nine-year-old Cheryl Bolan (ph), who's about to embark on a 12-hour drive from California to Portland, Ore., cringes at the thought of having to use a public rest stop.
CHERYL BOLAN: You know, I woke up early one morning, and all of a sudden, ding, it occurred to me (laughter). Nasty.
SMITH: Experts say such fears are well founded.
GREG POLAND: It's miserable, disgustingly miserable.
SMITH: Dr. Greg Poland, an infectious disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic, says just the fact that bathrooms tend to be highly trafficked and too cramped for social distancing makes them risky. But on top of that, poor hand-washing leaves doorknobs, faucets and other surfaces contaminated, and flushing the toilet creates a plume up to 6 feet high. While it's not yet proven that the coronavirus can spread that way, we know others can, so Poland says it just adds to the worry.
POLAND: I mean, it really is a nightmare. You have a bioweapons factory in that room.
SMITH: Some businesses are trying to adapt, for example, installing touch-free doors, faucets and hand dryers or switching to touch-free paper towel dispensers to avoid the possibility of dryers blowing coronavirus through the air, another potential, though yet unproven, risk. They're also cleaning and disinfecting more, requiring face masks and hiring bathroom monitors to control crowds and enforce distancing.
Steven Soifer, president of the American Restroom Association, a safety advocacy group, says many are also installing dividers between urinals or closing down every other one.
STEVEN SOIFER: There's a new term out there. It's called social piss-tancing (ph).
SMITH: Soifer hopes the heightened awareness brought by COVID-19 will prompt an overhaul of public restrooms to look more like the single, fully enclosed stalls typical in Europe. But that'll take more money than many businesses want to invest and more time than many people can wait, including Cheryl Bolan.
BOLAN: It suddenly popped in my mind that I'll just do it in the car (laughter).
SMITH: Bolan's one of a growing number who bought a portable urinal called the Feminal. It's one of a slew now on the market, like the GoGirl, the Shewee and the Tinkle Belle, a kind of funnel with what's described as a squeegee feature so you don't need toilet paper.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Because we believe all women should be able to get out and go.
SMITH: Once a niche market for outdoorsy types or bed-ridden patients, the urinals, funnels and portable potties are now mass market high-demand items. Linda Asta, a nurse, invented the Feminal.
LINDA ASTA: All of a sudden, the sales have actually quadrupled in a month and a half.
SMITH: The urinals do carry their own risks if you don't hold them just right. Most manufacturers recommend practicing first. After a few hopefully dry runs at home, they say going on the go will be the safer way to go.
Tovia Smith, NPR News.
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