Alderman decides to hold it with controversial public washroom edict

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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) wanted to force Chicago businesses to listen.

Now, he’s holding it in — legislatively, that is.

On Wednesday, Moore voluntarily stalled his own plan to require every licensed business with a public restroom — including restaurants, bars, hotels and retail stores — to make washrooms available to “individuals who have an emergency without having to make a purchase” or pay a fee.

The alderman agreed to put the measure on hold in a City Council committee after top mayoral aides assured him there is already a state law on the books that mandates the same thing; it simply needs to be enforced by the Departments of Buildings and Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, Moore added.

A city spokeswoman, however, said it’s up to the state to enforce a state law. Moore was asked whether it was realistic to expect state or city officials to worry about a public washroom edict when there are higher enforcement priorities.

“Not only do I expect people to make complaints. As an alderman, I’ll go test it myself,” Moore said. “I showed my aldermanic badge and said, “I’ve really got to go.’ And they said, ‘No. You’ve got to buy something.'”

That’s why Moore insisted he’s not done with the issue.

“I’m not walking away from … making sure residents have access to public bathrooms. Be clear of that. [But] if there’s language that’s already out there that’s law and it’s about enforcement, then we just have to enforce it,” Moore said after Wednesday’s License Committee meeting.

“No one should ever be in a position where they embarrass themselves by going to the bathroom on themselves. It’s a big deal and one that I did not see until I started [hearing] phone calls on radio stations of senior citizens saying, ‘I’m staying home and I can’t get out like I want because I don’t have access to a public bathroom when I have to go.’”

Moore introduced the ordinance three months ago after running into a humiliated woman at a Subway restaurant who had just had an accident after being denied entry to a public washroom.

The woman told him she “had to go really bad” and was told she needed to buy something before being allowed to use the washroom. She had the accident while digging through her purse to find her wallet.

“For them to have to purchase something in order to go to the bathroom is inhumane,” the alderman said.

Currently, public washrooms must be made available to non-customers for “medical emergencies only.”

Illinois Restaurant Association President Sam Toia and Tanya Triche Dawood, vice-president and general counsel for the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, have called Moore’s ordinance well-intentioned, but argued a city mandate would pose an incredible burden on restaurants, bars and retail stores, particularly those located downtown and near Wrigley Field.

On Wednesday, Moore dismissed those warnings.

“People are concerned, but I don’t think it’s gonna be abused. That’s more of a scare tactic,” Moore said.

Lilia Chacon, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, acknowledged: “There is a state law already on the books that covers the same ground.” But, Chacon said, it would be up to the state to enforce it.

“We don’t have jurisdiction,” Chacon said. “It’s not our law.”

Hours later, Chacon sent a follow-up email noting that her department and the Department of Buildings are working with Moore “around current law and enforcement of public restroom use.”

“BACP plans to conduct outreach to the business community to ensure that they are aware of the current laws related to bathroom construction and access,” she wrote.

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