It's a situation many have found themselves in at one point or another.
You're in downtown Charlottetown, maybe browsing the shops or taking a stroll, and nature calls. Worse, your toddler has to pee, too.
You cross your legs and look around for the nearest public washroom.
Good luck with that.
There is only one in the downtown area that is provided by the city — located on the waterfront at Peakes Quay — and it closes for the year after Thanksgiving weekend. The city's Parks and Recreation Department manages several others, but they are located in arenas, parks and other venues away from the commercial district. There are a couple public washrooms at Victoria Park, including one that's open year round.
"If I have to go to the bathroom, I have to go home," said Rebecca Wilchynski, who, being in a wheelchair, finds it even more difficult to access a washroom downtown.
There are some options. Founders Hall, the Confederation Centre of the Arts, the Guild, and the Confederation Court Mall, for example, are public buildings and if you catch them during business hours, you can go in and do your business.
Reserved for paying customers
Private establishments, such as coffee shops and restaurants, often reserve their washrooms for paying customers. And COVID-19 health measures may restrict access even further. An employee at Linda's Coffee Shop said the pandemic prompted them to put a sign on their door that says: "The Washroom is NOT for Public. Sorry for any inconvenience!"
Dawn Alan, executive director of Downtown Charlottetown Inc., a non-profit that advocates on behalf of local businesses, said there is a need for more public washrooms in the city core.
"Visitors may limit their time spent in the downtown due to a lack of reliable washrooms. Others may feel they must go without food or drink, or hold it, which can lead to preventable health problems," she said in an email to CBC.
Another frequent side effect of scarce public washrooms is public urination, which is humiliating as well as a public health hazard that worsens the perception of the downtown area. — Dawn Alan
"Another frequent side effect of scarce public washrooms is public urination, which is humiliating as well as a public health hazard that worsens the perception of the downtown area."
In August, Downtown Charlottetown Inc., applied to the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency for funding for a mobile "comfort station" to be located in the centre of the business district, or at specific events if needed.
Kevin Murphy, who owns several restaurants in the downtown area, would also like to see more public washrooms downtown.
He said while washrooms are usually reserved for guests, they don't like to turn people away.
"Being in the tourism business and hospitality, it is part of the business. They may have eaten at your place before or might in the future."
Frank Quinn, manager of Charlottetown's Parks and Recreation Department, said there have been discussions about the need for more public washrooms downtown. But he said there are some challenges that come with maintaining them, including "inappropriate activities."
Cleaning is a challenge
"We monitor it quite closely and if we have any incidents, we require police support, we'll contact them and they need to do extra monitoring and whatnot. But we found, overall, things run quite smoothly," he said.
"The biggest thing when you have a washroom open year round and longer hours, the requirement of cleaning is increased dramatically. So that's one of the challenges at times."
There is also the cost, which is not a piddling amount. At least one councillor has questioned the $18,000 a year the city pays Waterfront Investments to lease the public washroom at Peakes Quay, which is only open from May to October.
Quinn said the city has discussed building its own public washroom at the adjacent Confederation Landing Park.
"It gives us more control and potentially we could extend the hours of operations, you know, have it open earlier, stay open longer in the season or it could even become a year-round washroom."
Wilchynski welcomes that idea, but said making them easily accessible to people with mobility issues should be priority No. 1.
She said she sometimes has to ask a friend to hold the door open to get into the washroom at Peakes Quay.
"In order to get the door open, you have to ram your chair and yourself under the sink, under the counter to get the door past your wheelchair, because it just barely, barely fits."