Gotta go? Proposal would ensure public toilet access in emergency

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Ald. David Moore proposed an ordinance require businesses to allow emergency use of their on-site public restrooms even to people who aren’t buying anything. But he agreed to put it on hold after he was assured state law already requires it. | Sun-Times file photo

When nature calls, rookie Ald. David Moore (17th) wants Chicago businesses to listen.

Moore wants every licensed business with a public restroom — including restaurants, bars, hotels and retail stores — to be required to make washrooms available to “individuals who have an emergency … without having to make a purchase” or pay a fee.

Moore introduced the ordinance at Wednesday’s City Council meeting after running into a humiliated woman at a Subway restaurant two weeks ago who had just had an accident after being denied entry to a public washroom.

“A lady was in there crying. I asked her why. I noticed some water by her leg and she said, `I had to go really bad.’ She said, `I promise you I’ll buy something when I come out of the bathroom.” And they said, `No. You’ve got to buy something first,’ ” Moore said Thursday.

“As she was going through her purse, she couldn’t hold it no longer. She ended up going to the bathroom on herself. I just felt bad. … It was humiliating. I would hate to see anybody else go through that. … For them to have to purchase something in order to go to the bathroom is inhumane.”

Currently, public washrooms must be made available to non-customers for “medical emergencies only.” Moore’s ordinances goes further.

Chicago Ald. David Moore was inspired to do something about emergency access to public restrooms after talking to a woman who had an accident at a fast-food restaurant. | Sun-Times file photo

Chicago Ald. David Moore was inspired to do something about emergency access to public restrooms after talking to a woman who had an accident at a fast-food restaurant. | Sun-Times file photo

It states: “Any licensee that provides public toilet facilities to its customers must allow individuals who have an emergency and need to use the toilet facilities to do so without having to make a purchase. A fee cannot be charged for the use of the toilet facilities under these circumstances.”

Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia and Tanya Triche Dawood, vice-president and general counsel for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said the ordinance is well-intentioned, but goes too far, particularly downtown and near Wrigley Field.

“When you have 40,000 people on the street after the game, what does this do to bathrooms in the restaurant? You get all these people in good moods coming in and using the restrooms just because they want to. They could get a line if you have this many people going into a restaurant to use the bathroom. And you have to keep the bathrooms clean,” Toia said.

“Let’s say during the St. Patty’s Day parade downtown. Do all these people on the street then just walk into all of these restaurants and use the bathroom? There’s no control. How do you manage this when you have massive amounts of people? Their bathrooms are not really capable of handling hundreds of people. It definitely could be too much of a burden.”

Triche Dawood said the mandate would be particularly burdensome for small businesses in high-traffic areas.

“When there’s a big festival, a small business can be rushed with people just wanting to use the restroom. They’re not equipped to handle that. The consequences can be very substantial, particularly for small businesses…near places of amusement or in areas that get a lot of foot traffic because there are other sites that draw people,” she said.

Triche Dawood questioned how store owners would distinguish between a genuine emergency and someone who just wants to hit the head without having to walk too far.

“We want to be able to service more customers who shop. Shopping doesn’t necessarily mean you buy something for that trip. But you’re in that store with the intent to purchase. We want our facilities to be for those customers,” she said.

If the full City Council goes along with the bathroom edict, it would add to the mountain of taxes and government mandates imposed on Chicago businesses in recent years. Businesses have likened it to death by a thousand cuts.

The cuts include: a higher minimum wage; an $838 million property tax increase for police, fire and teacher pensions paid “disproportionately” by the business community; increases in the Cook County sales and hotel taxes and an ordinance requiring Chicago employers large and small to provide their employees with at least five paid sick days each year.

More recently, the City Council imposed a 7-cents-a-bag tax on paper and plastic bags that has left consumers feeling even more nickeled-and-dimed. That’s because they pay it every time they go to the grocery or any other Chicago store without reusable bags.

The piling on has also included a ton of regulations and taxes on tobacco products, as well as Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to raise the smoking age to 21.

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