Public restrooms: What you need to know about using them safely amid the pandemic

Person-to-person contact is the main way that Covid-19 spreads, according to the CDC. So if you can avoid entering a crowded public restroom, that can make a significant difference in reducing your risk of infection.

(CNN)When Mariel Balaban drove across the United States in the middle of the pandemic, she knew that avoiding public restrooms was not an option for her young family.

"Traveling with a toddler and being seven months pregnant means lots of 'potty stops,'" said Balaban, a communications professional who moved from San Francisco to the Philadelphia area in early April. But Balaban worried that finding safe, clean public restrooms was going to be a challenge.
To mitigate the risk, she packed masks and disposable gloves. When stopping at gas stations, the family tried to avoid touching anything unnecessarily.
    Everyone disinfected their hands each time they returned to the car, and Balaban wiped down "high-touch" surfaces likely to contain germs.
      Still, the restroom thing was stressful.
      And a new study underscores the potential risk, showing how flushing a toilet can send plumes of germs into the air. While the World Health Organization has said the risk of contracting Covid-19 from fecal matter appears to be low, it noted studies that have suggested the Covid-19 virus can be excreted in feces.
      "If you don't have to use the public restroom, don't," said microbiologist Ali Nouri, president of the Federation of American Scientists. "That's the first thing you need to know."
        Like Balaban, Nouri also took a recent trip by car, a three-hour drive over the weekend. He avoided stopping to use the bathroom and put a diaper on his 4-year-old. But as Americans adapt to the ongoing pandemic, he knows that skipping public toilets altogether isn't going to be possible.
        "It's not always practical," he acknowledged. "Sometimes when you gotta go, you gotta go."

        How risky are public toilets?

        They're not great. Nouri said he's wary of public bathrooms because they're relatively small rooms. That makes it hard to practice social distancing, which scientists agree is essential to fighting the pandemic.
        Toilets can also be poorly ventilated. "Bathrooms are enclosed spaces, and they don't have windows," he said. "So the virus, in an environment like that, is just going to linger."
        That's aggravated by flushing toilets, which can send clouds of aerosolized particles circulating through the air. PSA: Always put the lid down before you flush, if there is a lid!
        Powerful hot-air dryers can be an issue, too. High-powered jet air dryers dispersed a virus up to 3 meters, a 2015 paper in the Journal of Applied Microbiology found.