New York (CNN Business) — Twenty years ago, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was under pressure to build more public restrooms. He responded with a response that represents how most of the United States has handled access to public restrooms for decades.

“There are enough Starbucks that will allow you to use the bathroom,” he joked.

And indeed, private companies like Starbucks stepped in for years to offer their public restrooms, as state and local governments basically outsourced a public service to private companies.

Starbucks has adopted an open restroom policy at times and avoided it at others. Now the coffee chain says it can no longer be America’s public toilet.

Starbucks could close restrooms to the public as part of its efforts to make stores safer.

Last month, Starbucks interim CEO Howard Schultz said the company may not be able to keep its restrooms open, blaming a growing mental health problem that poses a threat to its staff and customers. “We have to strengthen our stores and provide security for our people,” Schultz said. at a conference. “I don’t know if we can keep our bathrooms open.”

Starbucks’ reassessment of its restrooms highlights the pressing need for local, state, and federal government to prioritize access to public restrooms.

“The commercial solution is really not a great solution,” said Lezlie Lowe, a journalist and author of “No Place to Go: How Public Toilets Fail our Private Needs,” published in 2018.

“It is leaving in the hands of private companies what is clearly, without a doubt, a necessary service for the use of our cities. No rational person would want Starbucks to pay for traffic lights or streetlights.”

nowhere to go

There aren’t enough places in America to go to the bathroom, let alone clean, safe, fully-resourced facilities.

Without adequate public restrooms, people go to places that put them at risk of arrest, endangering public health and negatively affecting the livability of neighborhoods. The lack of public restrooms is a serious problem for the homeless, delivery drivers who spend hours on the road, and people with health problems or disabilities. Women they also often have to wait in longer lines than men to go to the bathroom.

“It is an ongoing sanitation crisis, and it highlights the inequality and marginalization of Americans,” wrote Catarina de Albuquerque, executive director of the United Nations global partnership Sanitation and Water for All, in a statement. opinion piece this month. “Like food, water and shelter, access to safe sanitation is a fundamental human right.”

In 2011, de Albuquerque assessed US water and sanitation services for the United Nations and found that despite being one of the richest countries in the world, the United States “had woefully inadequate availability of public restrooms.” : only eight per 100,000 people on average, the same number as Botswana. Iceland leads the world with 56 toilets per 100,000 inhabitants.

Public toilets in the 20th century

There’s no easy answer to how America got into this problem, but public restrooms have long been a political battlefieldfrom segregated Jim Crow facilities to laws targeting transgender people.

The heyday of promotion of the creation of public restrooms It was produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Before that, urinating in public was common. In the cities, taverns were often the only option.

“Men urinating, like horses defecating, was a daily occurrence on the street. ‘Ladies passing sidewalks are frequently subjected to indelicate displays which they cannot help but witness,’ reported one observer,” wrote the historian Peter Baldwin in an academic article in 2014.

A coalition of housing reformers, medical and public health experts, women’s groups, and temperance activists became concerned about the problems created by the lack of public restrooms. The latter’s concerns centered on men using the tavern toilets and staying longer to continue drinking.

Before Prohibition went into effect in 1920, cities rushed to build public restrooms to avoid looming shortages from bar closures, according to Baldwin. In subsequent decades, local governments closed public restrooms and reduced hours due to high maintenance costs, budget shortfalls, crime, and other factors.

Private companies then stepped in to fill the void, such as gas stations as more people began to take to the streets, fast-food chains like McDonald’s, and eventually companies like Starbucks.

Starbucks’ stance on restrooms

The chain of cafes has for decades been a solution for those desperate for a bathroom.

In 2004, a New York Times reporter wrote an ironic guide for people attending the Republican National Convention in New York City. “The lack of public restrooms is the shame of the city,” he acknowledged. He recommended that visitors do like the locals: go to Starbucks.

That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for the network. Starbucks has positioned its thousands of stores as a “third place,” after work and home: a place to grab coffee on the go, or one where you can sit down, have a latte, and mingle with friends or strangers.

Opening its restrooms to the public has helped brand Starbucks as a place for members of the community, and it’s also a great way to get potential customers through the door.

“Starbucks made money keeping the bathrooms. They benefited from the absence of the government,” said Bryant Simon, a Temple University historian who wrote a book about Starbucks and is currently working on one about public restrooms.

But allowing free access to its restrooms often places a burden on Starbucks employees. In 2011, The New York Times reported about baristas who rioted by closing store bathrooms because they were “tired of customers, and non-customers, leaving bathrooms messy or worse.”

Howard Schultz, interim CEO of Starbucks, has discussed the company’s restroom policy in recent months.

The article noted that “in a city with few options, people reacted as if Starbucks were revoking a public right.” Starbucks then stepped in and instructed workers to leave restrooms open, according to the article.

The company codified its bathroom policy in 2018 after two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks while waiting for a friend. One of the men said he asked to use the bathroom shortly after entering and was told it was for paying customers only. Minutes later, a store employee called 911.

Starbucks has apologized and organized training to educate its employees about racial bias. He also officially informed the employees that the bathrooms were for everyone.

“Anyone who walks into our spaces…regardless of whether they make a purchase, is considered a customer,” Starbucks said in an email to workers at the time. But the compromise has proven to be a challenge.

This month, Starbucks said it would close 16 stores, citing safety concerns. In an open letter outlining the steps Starbucks is taking to try to keep workers safe, members of the US leadership team listed “closing restrooms” as part of the effort. The changes come as Starbucks battles a growing campaign of unionization.

In a July memo, Schultz discussed the challenges facing Starbucks and the country as a whole.

“Our stores serve as America’s showcases,” he said. “We are in a position where we must modernize and transform the Starbucks experience in our stores and recreate an environment that is relevant, welcoming and safe.”

Companies cannot be left to solve the dilemma of public toilets, Temple’s Simon said. “Only a strengthened and robust State can solve it.”

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