How do you find a clean restroom in Bay Area during the pandemic? It’s not easy

During a recent stroll through Hayes Valley, things almost felt normal, with people sunning at Patricia’s Green, dawdling in retail stores and zipping in to get takeout from restaurants.

But no one seemed to know where to go to the bathroom.

On the short Hayes Street block between Octavia and Laguna streets, four stores, peppered with requests, finally opted for signs saying that restrooms are not available.

La Boulangerie de San Francisco has posted a sign that reads: “Sorry, no bathrooms allowed.” A similar sign hangs across the street, at Patxi’s Pizza. Server Julius Allen estimated that 20 people still ask about the restroom during each of his shifts. “People always asked before COVID times, but now, it’s constant,” Allen said.

It’s a similar story at Peak Design, a travel bags and camera gear store: The restroom is currently unavailable, even to customers. When asked where customers could find relief nearby, store manager P.J. Harris said: “No idea. Not in this area.”

The Hayes Valley experience is a microcosm of what’s going on across the Bay Area, where a decades-old problem of finding clean public restrooms has been amplified during the coronavirus pandemic. With concerns about sanitation intensified and many go-to options shuttered or more heavily secured, places for people to relieve themselves are few and far between.

QR code seen on a monitor at the Pacific Heights Chevron on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in San Francisco, Calif. Pacific Heights Chevron is participating in a pilot program with the Good2Go app to insure keyless and touchless restrooms.

Lenore Estrada understands the demand, as pregnancy created an extra challenge for her during the pandemic. The owner of Three Babes Bakeshop said she often planned her day around bathroom access, calling ahead to make sure something is available when feeling like she “has to pee every 20 minutes.”

“We’re failing at human dignity,” Fran Heller said. “The system is broken; however, there’s technology that can fix it.”

Heller is the chief executive of Good2Go, a San Francisco startup. She started working on the problem after her Menlo Park running group had trouble finding a restroom in 2015. With a background in biotech and pharma, Heller developed a solution that combines virtual queuing with keyless access and touchless hardware.

The company’s app solves two problems: where to find a restroom and how to access it. Good2Go uses geolocation to find a nearby restroom and allow a customer to join a virtual queue. When it’s the customer’s turn, a phone alert arrives with a digital key to unlock the restroom. Businesses can also print a QR code to provide a hands-free experience.

Good2Go, which says it has had 750,000 uses of its system, has had successful pilot programs with the Pacific Heights Chevron and the Haight Whole Foods Market.

One of Good2Go’s partners is Peet’s. With the coffee roaster generally relegated to drive-through and takeout orders — meaning restrooms aren’t available — Good2Go has taken a hit. But it also reported an “overwhelming” increase in requests for information about its service from local and federal government recently.

David Shimmon, left to right, and his brother, Steven Shimmon, talk with friend and vendor, Sally Hiebert, in a hallway near a public restroom in the Ferry Building during the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturday, August 8, 2020, in San Francisco, Calif. Steven Shimmon said that "in the olden days" - the days before the coronavirus pandemic - there used to be lines on market day at the few public restrooms available in the building.

Maybe no one is feeling the squeeze more than drivers. In a recent Good2Go poll, 53% of gig, parcel delivery, food delivery, and light truck delivery drivers said they have found relief in an alley or bottle during the pandemic.

“Female drivers have it especially tough, because they aren’t as likely to pee in an alleyway or Gatorade bottle. Even though, not every male driver would admit it, we have all peed in an alley or even a Gatorade bottle at some point or another,” said Harry Campbell, who started driving part-time for Uber and Lyft in 2014 before quitting his job as an engineer a year later to cover the gig economy full time at the Rideshare Guy, a website and podcast.

Campbell said drivers all have their tricks for finding clean public restrooms, like making quick stops at a cafe of fast-food restaurant, but few are open for sit-down service in the Bay Area these days. Because restrooms at gas stations and grocery stores can be busier than ever, Campbell said some drivers sneak into hotel or hospital lobbies.

Grocery stores might consistently have the longest lines, although some have figured out the trick that posting an “out of order” sign is easier than meeting the demand. Finding a gas station restroom often means waiting in your car and clogging a pump space since parking is limited, and hotels often have heightened security during the pandemic.

Fletcher Wilson was getting a late-night Uber ride home when he asked the driver how he found restrooms.

Braking at the next stop sign, the driver popped open the glove compartment to reveal a neatly rolled necktie. The driver said, “Whenever I drop a passenger at a hotel, I throw on the tie, walk into the lobby, and boom, a really nice bathroom is all mine.”

“What struck me most was the subtle hint of shame that drives this sort of strategy: That he felt the need to dress himself up to earn access to a nice bathroom experience,” said Wilson, who this year founded Throne Labs, a San Francisco company that hopes to establish a set of new, clean restrooms in cities. “It is clear that this problem has been made a lot worse for everyone. We keep hearing people say that many of their go-to spots aren’t open anymore, and also that cleanliness is much more important than it used to be.”

San Francisco announced in April the distribution of a series of new portable toilets and handwashing stations at 15 high-need locations in response to the pandemic. The toilets are available 24 hours a day, staffed to deter untoward activities, and are cleaned daily.

Though the numbers could be skewed by the fact that fewer people are working downtown to call in reports on human waste, statistics have improved. There were 1,840 reports of human and animal waste to the city’s 311 hotline last month. August reports have averaged more than 2,400 in the past three years.

Concerns about spreading the coronavirus on surfaces have eased. But as with any common space, health experts say that people should touch as little as possible in restrooms and wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. They say to use a paper towel to activate the faucet and to open the door, and to carry hand sanitizer — in case the restroom is out of handwashing supplies.

In an American Institute of Physics report in July, a study showed that tiny water droplets are ejected several feet from a toilet during a flush. Forced air dryers can also blow whatever is on your hands back into your face.

Molly Lacob washes her hands in one of the few public restrooms in the Ferry Building during a trip to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturday, August 8, 2020, in San Francisco, Calif. Shoppers, many of whom are reluctant to use public restrooms due to the coronavirus, said they prepare for not using a public restroom before venturing to the market, and although there's talk of porta potties near the building, none are in place as of yet.

Among the riskiest parts of using a public restroom is waiting in long lines, especially if proper distancing isn’t possible or face-covering guidance isn’t enforced.

“There is a prevalent problem of long lines for ladies’ rooms and the need for greater potty parity, equal speed of access for toilets for males and females,” said Kathryn H. Anthony, the vice president of the American Restroom Association. “For millions of people around the world, boys and girls, men and women of all ages, especially pregnant and menstruating women, and whether you are Democrat, Republican or Green, using public restrooms is no laughing matter.”

People probably still won’t be belly laughing, but there may be an easing of bladders on the horizon.

San Francisco’s progress in coronavirus rates and testing pushed the county Tuesday from the second-worst to the second-best tier on the state’s four-color blueprint for a safer economy. After its bump to the orange tier, indicating what’s considered “moderate” spread of the virus, San Francisco on Wednesday allowed indoor dining and bars that serve food to open at 25% capacity or to 100 people, whichever is fewer. Indoor restaurants are expected to allow diners use of restrooms, while outdoor restaurants are on a case-by-case basis. City rules permit restaurants to allow patrons seated outdoors to go inside to use restrooms, but it’s unclear whether the restaurants must do so.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed also hopes that city playgrounds will be able to open by Oct. 14. If so, the Hayes Valley Playground, with its restrooms and changing tables, would be available for the first time since the mid-March shelter-in-place order.

“That will be nice to have at least one option to send customers,” said Emily Soe, a sales associate at the Orange Bird gift shop on Hayes Street. “It’s difficult to turn away families with small children and not have an answer for them.”

Rusty Simmons is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Rusty_SFChron

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