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A locked public bathroom at the French Broad River Park in Asheville, North Carolina. Widespread restroom closures in the early days of the pandemic underscored a longer-standing shortage of hygiene facilities in U.S. cities. 

A locked public bathroom at the French Broad River Park in Asheville, North Carolina. Widespread restroom closures in the early days of the pandemic underscored a longer-standing shortage of hygiene facilities in U.S. cities. 

Photographer:  George Etheredge/Bloomberg

CityLab
Culture

Where Did All the Public Bathrooms Go?

For decades, U.S. cities have been closing or neglecting public restrooms, leaving millions with no place to go. Here’s how a lack of toilets became an American affliction. 

Surviving a pandemic has a way of forcing people to focus on the basics: health, food, shelter, the need for human connection — and going to the bathroom.

This became evident during the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020, when panic buyers emptied store shelves in the first weeks of U.S. stay-home orders. As Covid closures continued, the pandemic revealed a different toilet-related problem that predated the novel coronavirus: a dire lack of public restrooms. Though facilities in bars and retail establishments are often thought of as “public,” widespread shutdowns served as a stark reminder that they’re really not — and that few genuinely public bathrooms remain in American cities.