People are wondering if it's safe to use public restrooms amid the pandemic. Here's what experts say

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·5 min read
DALLAS, TEXAS - MAY 01:  A urinal in the men's restroom is taped off in an effort to adhere social distancing guidelines at Allen Premium Outlets during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on May 01, 2020 in Allen, Texas.  Texas. Gov. Abbott announced the reopening of retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls at 25% capacity beginning on May 1, 2020.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
DALLAS, TEXAS - MAY 01: A urinal in the men's restroom is taped off in an effort to adhere social distancing guidelines at Allen Premium Outlets during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on May 01, 2020 in Allen, Texas. Texas. Gov. Abbott announced the reopening of retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls at 25% capacity beginning on May 1, 2020. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Stay-at-home orders are slowly lifting around the country and, with that, life is starting to get back to normal—or, at least, a new normal. While there are general public safety recommendations for people, like wearing a mask in public and washing your hands regularly, things like whether it’s OK to use a public restroom now haven’t been addressed.

The topic recently came up on the app Nextdoor. “How does one deal with the possible / eventual need for a restroom?” one person wrote. “I have been thinking this same question,” another responded.

Concerns about germs have always plagued public restrooms, but it’s understandable that you might worry about it more these days. So, what’s the best way to approach public bathroom use in the age of COVID-19?

You should be especially cautious when using a public bathroom these days, Dr. Kathryn Boling, a primary care physician at Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. “If you touch something that someone else touches who has been infected, and then you touch your mouth, nose or eyes, you’re at risk of getting infected with COVID-19,” she says.

If you’re planning to use the bathroom just to relieve yourself, you’re fine to just wash your hands after you go, infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. “But you should wash your hands beforehand if you’re going in there to brush your teeth, adjust your nose ring or to work on your contact lenses,” he says.

Stalls can help provide some protection, Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “For men, try to keep some distance at the urinals or use a stall,” he says. And, while you’re in the stall, Schaffner says it’s “perfectly OK to use the toilet paper.”

After you use the bathroom, wash your hands. When it comes to turning the faucet on and off, “it’s best to layer a paper towel or unused tissue between your hand and the surface, if it’s available,” Schaffner says.

As for drying your hands, a paper towel is your best bet, Boling says. If a hand dryer is the only option, it’s better to just air dry your hands, Dr. David Cutler, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. “Using hand dryers in public restrooms is the worst way to dry your washed hands,” he says. “This is because the blow dryers suck in bacteria and viruses from the air in the bathroom and shoot it all over your hands.”

When you leave the bathroom, Boling recommends trying to use your elbow to push open the door or using a clean paper towel to grip the door handle.

And, if you can, Adalja recommends trying to stay six feet away from others while waiting to use the bathroom and when you’re inside. “Some people may want to wait outside the bathroom until it’s empty,” he says. “It will ultimately boil down to your own risk tolerance.”

If the bathroom is especially crowded and there are other restroom options, Boling recommends exploring those. Just don’t force yourself to hold it in over coronavirus fears. “If you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go,” she says.

As for the future of public restroom use, you can expect that it will change somewhat, Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. "It's going to be up to the businesses. I don't think we're going to see any direction or state mandate when it comes to bathrooms," he says. "But to some extent, the general public is going to be looking to businesses to reassure them that they are keeping safe and disinfected bathrooms."

Gonsenhauser expects that more people will take matters into their own hands by doing things like carrying handkerchiefs and gloves, to use on door handles and faucet knobs, as well as carrying hand sanitizer.

"In the future, limiting the number of people in public restrooms will be more important," Gonsenhauser says. However, he adds, it's going to be difficult for many businesses to actually figure out how to enact that. Doing something like hiring an attendant to direct bathroom traffic can be tricky for already cash-strapped businesses to afford, Gonsenhauser points out.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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