“Let the people go!” an activist group is telling Starbucks after the coffee chain’s boss threatened to close down its bathrooms.
The American Restroom Association is marking World Toilet Day on 19 November, an awareness-raising day started by the United Nations to celebrate toilets and advocate for proper sanitation systems, by calling on Starbucks to keep its restrooms open to the public.
In June, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz specifically mentioned the Starbucks bathroom situation while speaking at a conference.
“We serve 100m at Starbucks, and there is an issue of just safety in our stores in terms of people coming in and using our stores as a public bathroom,” he said. While Schultz did not specify what problems the business has been having with its open-restroom policy, Schultz said the company has to “harden our stores and provide safety for our people”.
“I don’t think we can keep our bathrooms open,” he said.
The stance is different from the one the chain has had since 2018, when it told employees that all patrons, paying customers or not, would be allowed to use the restroom in stores.
The announcement came after two Black men were arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia – an encounter that was filmed and went viral. One man asked to use the restroom, and an employee informed him that he needed to purchase something to stay at the store and use the facilities. Moments later, police arrived and arrested them, seemingly without any clear reason.
In a memo to employees in 2018, Starbucks said that the open-restroom policy “is intended to help maintain the third-place environment in alignment with our mission”, referring to the sociological concept of a “third place” – a place of community that is neither the home nor a workplace.
In a statement to the Guardian, a Starbucks spokesperson said: “No changes to our bathroom policy have been made. Our local leaders have a number of options at their disposal to support our Third Place Policy, which includes the ability to modify store operations and restroom access, following local jurisdiction laws where applicable.”
While Starbucks has not officially changed its bathroom policy after Schultz’s comments, the American Restroom Association (ARA), which advocates for safe and well-designed public restrooms, notes that some Starbucks locations have closed their restrooms to the public.
Steve Soifer, the group’s president, pointed out that international plumbing codes require business establishments to keep their toilet facilities open to both visitors and customers – essentially anyone walking into their business. Such plumbing codes exist around the country, but enforcement can be non-existent.
Still, Soifer argues that Americans have few other options.
“The problem is there aren’t any other choices,” Soifer said. “You go to New York City, for example, and you’re walking around. The only places you can go are public libraries or museums. They have to keep the bathrooms open for the public. Everything else is hit-or-miss.”
“Try to find city-built public toilets in New York City, they’re virtually non-existent.”
Part of the problem, Soifer said, is that there is no official count of how many government-operated public restrooms are in the US. One study, conducted by British bathroom supply company QS Supplies, estimates that there are 8 public toilets for every 100,000 Americans, ranking below the UK, France and Canada. In comparison, Iceland, which has the highest number, has 56 public toilets for 100,000 people. Soifer said the ARA is trying to get funding to create a “national toilet map” for the US which will show all public restrooms in the country.
Pay-to-use toilets, more commonly seen across Europe, were once prolific in the US. People protested that Americans should not have to pay to use public facilities, but instead of building free-to-use restrooms, the restrooms shut down entirely in the 70s with nothing to fill the gaps.
“We thought by eliminating pay toilets, cities and counties would invest in building public toilets, and that just never happened. Now we have no options,” Soifer said. “There’s such a dearth of public toilets in the US for people to use.”
Some progressive local governments have made efforts to construct public toilets. Soifer pointed to Portland’s “Portland Loo” initiative, where the city constructed free-standing restrooms around the city. Other cities have started to take on the concept, including San Diego and Sacramento.
But building more restrooms can be costly and politically difficult for local governments. California governor Gavin Newsom criticized plans to build public restrooms in San Francisco’s Noe Valley neighborhood. The toilets would cost $1.7m and take up to three years to build. The ensuing anger over the plan was nicknamed “Toiletgate”.
Because businesses like Starbucks already have functioning facilities, the immediate solution is allowing access to the public with broader hopes that people can push governments to build clean and accessible municipally funded restrooms.
“This is such a widely felt issue,” Soifer said. “I mean, everyone I talk to has a public toilet horror story.”