Thursday, June 4, 2020

Eagle Butte

Public Restrooms: access and etiquette; right or privilege

We at the West River Eagle noticed that there were many public restrooms west of Highway 212 bridge over the Missouri River last fall that were locked up.

Those that were accessible were apparently not maintained, so if one had to use the restroom, they were likely to go across the bridge to Bob’s Resort to use the facility. When stopping to use that facility, some people feel obligated to purchase something for use of the restroom and others do not.

So we posed the question to each other: when you use a public restroom in a place of business, are you obligated to purchase something from that place of business?

Our small staff had varying opinions. One opinion is that the customer should buy something to pay for and show appreciation for access to a public restroom.

Another opinion is that no, one does not need to purchase an item to use the restroom, especially if the place of business is a gas station on a major thoroughfare.

Taking the question to Facebook and asking random friends and relatives, these two viewpoints seem to be well-supported by numerous and varied people.

Many said that if the business is a chain, then no, they do not feel obligated to purchase anything. If it is locally owned or a “mom and pop” location, then they do feel obligated to purchase something.

If there is a sign that says, “Customer’s Only,” then most people say they would purchase something — a pack of gum or a drink.

“Whether or not I buy a pack of gum, the employees still have to clean the bathroom and they still make sub-living wage. Instead, I make sure I clean up after myself. If there’s a tip jar, a dollar goes in there. If the business is owner operated, then definitely I buy something,” said Eric Shamp on an informal Facebook survey. Shamp is originally from Indianapolis, IN.

“I try to purchase something to show my appreciation for the public use of their restroom. I would like the same in return. At the very least tell them thank you and that you appreciate the use of their public restroom,” said Terri McLellan of Dupree.

Several people said that if they are a regular customer, they may not feel the need to buy something every time. For example, you may stop at Ampride most mornings for coffee, but when you returned home from your trip to Pierre, you just could not wait until you arrived at home so you stopped and used the restroom at Ampride.

The questions sparked a general interest in the whole concept of public restrooms, so we did a little research.

According to federal regulations, all business must provide a restroom for employees, and the only places of business that must provide public restrooms are those that sell food. State and local regulations govern public restrooms in other businesses.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) establishes guidelines for public restrooms, and most local and state governments use the Universal Plumbing Code or International Plumbing Code to determine the number of stalls and toilets needed based on the occupancy of the business.

Regulations also establish guidelines to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act, ensuring the facility provides easy access for people with disabilities, such as a grab bar and space to maneuver a wheelchair.

For most businesses, opening restrooms to the public is optional, and many enforce the “For Customers Only” postings.

Some states have what is called Ally’s Law, which requires a business to allow use of the restroom in emergency medical cases, such as a flare up of Crohn’s disease. These states are Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Maine, Maryland, Massachsusettes, Michigan, Tennessee, Texas, Washingron and Wisconsin, according to

Clearly, public access to the restroom is a concern for us as Americans. We are either worrying about maintaining a public restroom or worrying about using one.

The general consensus from everyone asked is that the restroom should be kept clean — by both the people taking care of it and the people using it.

This point is often what keeps some business owners from permitting some customers from using their public restrooms, whether they are customers or not.

Tegan Gray, CRST member, raised the question concerning those people who have no money to buy something, but still need to use the restroom. What do they do? Should businesses allow them to use the restroom?

We were divided on that matter too at the WRE. If a person owns a business, they should have a right to refuse service to people who enter their store, but they must also avoid unjust discrimination or even the perception that they are discriminating against someone, and so that could be why many limit restroom use to paying customers — to avoid someone claiming they were denied access based on race, gender identity or religion.

We also discussed homeless people, who often do not have money to purchase something every time they need to use the restroom and can be seen urinating on the side of the road, or defecating in some bushes.

Even in downtown Indianapolis, IN, a man was seen urinating mid-morning next to a building while others walked and drove by. Is it more sanitary to allow them to use a public restroom at a business nearby, or should we provide public restrooms that are accessible to anyone and outside of a private business for people who are homeless.

The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board published an article in 2017 about access to public restrooms.

“A bathroom is not just an amenity, it is a necessity — and with 34,000 homeless people in Los Angeles, more are desperately needed, not just downtown but in other areas of the city that have high concentrations of homeless people. Meanwhile, restrooms in some parks — particularly in Venice near the beach — need to stay open around the clock, not the eight hours per day planned by the city,” the Sept. 16, 2017 article said.

Eagle Butte has a substantial homeless population for such a small town, and even though we are in the middle of prairie country, should we consider providing true public restrooms, available 24/7 for all people, regardless of their ability to purchase items or services?

Graham Smith, a resident of New York City who has spent significant time in Seoul, Korea, said that in NYC, most businesses have locked restrooms that require customers to ask employees for a key. Businesses in the U.S. must provide toilet paper and water, soap and/or sanitation fluids for customers in their public restrooms.

In Seoul, most public restrooms are easily accessible, without having to go into the business itself, but those who use the restroom must bring with them their own toilet paper and sanitary products.

Most gas stations along major highways expect a certain number of people to stop in without purchasing anything.

Providing public restrooms prevents most people from popping a squat against a building or relieving themselves under a bush, which can become a health concern for everyone in the community.

If as a community, we want or expect people to be paying or regular customers in order to use the restrooms in local businesses, we should consider creating more public restroom options for those who are homeless or are not paying customers, if for no other reason than to prevent people from using the restroom alongside businesses, in bushes along public walkways, or in an open lot along the road.