The COVID-19 pandemic has altered our social lives in many ways. Perhaps one of the most notable changes is the rise of the physically distanced backyard hangout.
We’ve all seen the images of small groups of people sitting outside and having a drink. Although any sort of gathering does carry some risk for spreading the coronavirus, we know it’s much less easily transmitted outside, where there’s more space and more natural airflow.
Still, there’s one issue that seems unavoidable: What happens when someone has to use the bathroom?
“The real risk is from person-to-person interaction, so letting someone use your bathroom would not pose a major risk of disease exposure,” said Brian Labus, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ School of Public Health. “It’s not a zero-risk situation, but the overall risk would be low compared to direct contact with the other person.”
There are, however, some important factors to consider when deciding whether to allow someone in your house to use the bathroom, as well as some steps you can take to make the process safer. Read on for expert-backed guidance for handling this situation.
Consider your risk and the risk of others.
One factor to consider before letting someone into your home is your personal health. Think about any underlying medical conditions you may have and whether exposure to the coronavirus could put you at risk of serious illness or hospitalization. The Centers for Disease Control and Preventions’ current list of conditions that increase risk of severe illness from COVID-19 include chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and type 2 diabetes.
It’s also important to think of the health of others in your household and what could happen if they were to get the virus.
“If you live with people who are at high risk for disease, you might want to reconsider letting someone into your home just to avoid any risk of accidental contact for your family member,” Labus said.
Assess your guests’ health.
“Before arranging a gathering at your home, it is important to ask your guests whether they have active symptoms suggestive of COVID-19, such as fever, cough, shortness of breath,” said Tony Yuan, a physician and medical director at Doctor On Demand. “To ensure that you and your other guests are safe, kindly request that any visitors who have symptoms remain at home.”
He also recommended asking guests about their underlying health conditions, which could put them at higher risk for becoming seriously ill if they contract the coronavirus. It may feel less safe for these guests to go inside your home to use the bathroom.
“For these guests, it is especially important to maintain social distancing and advise them to wear a mask during these gatherings,” Yuan said.
Designate a guest bathroom if possible.
Not everyone has multiple bathrooms in their home — but if you do, it’s worth designating one as the bathroom for outside guests to use.
“If they can use a guest bathroom that you don’t normally use, that would reduce your risk of contact with any virus they left behind on a surface,” Labus said.
Put away personal items.
Give the space a cleaning and remove anything you wouldn’t want to be touched or otherwise potentially exposed to virus particles.
“To prepare your bathroom for use by guests, put away all of your personal items such as toothbrushes and towels from open spaces to avoid contamination,” Yuan advised.
Provide cleaning products.
You can request that your guests sanitize your bathroom after using it.
“Have disinfectant spray and wipes available for guests to wipe down touched surfaces before exiting the bathroom,” Yuan suggested.
Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious diseases physician and vice chair of the IDSA Global Health Committee, said guests should also come prepared if possible.
“I would also consider carrying hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes with you,” she said. “The disinfectant wipes can allow you to wipe down any high-touch surfaces in the bathroom before and after using the toilet.”
Limit time and touch inside the house.
If you’re letting guests inside to use your bathroom, try to minimize the amount of time they spend in the house and surfaces they may touch.
“In general, it is safe for visitors to use your bathroom as long as they do not take any detours,” Yuan said. “Determine the shortest route from your backyard to the nearest bathroom to limit exposure of your guests to surfaces inside your household.”
Guests should make an effort to touch as little as possible, for the sake of their own health and that of their hosts.
“While you can’t avoid touching things like door handles or light switches, now is not the time to snoop around your friend’s medicine cabinet,” Labus said.
Yuan also recommended that guests avoid touching their cellphones while using the restroom to reduce risk of contamination.
Enforce social distancing.
“I think it is fine to let a friend, family member or neighbor who is visiting use your bathroom,” Kuppalli said. “You just do not want multiple people congregating inside around the bathroom while waiting to use it since this will prevent physical distancing.”
One way to prevent this is to only allow one person inside to use the bathroom at a time. You should also generally limit the number of guests you’re entertaining outside to comply with public health guidelines and keep everyone safe and comfortable.
“The biggest risk is when you are around others, not when you go inside alone to use the bathroom,” Labus said.
“Consider the size of your yard to determine how many guests you can invite safely in order to maintain 6 feet of social distancing during the gathering,” Yuan suggested.
Require face masks.
You can politely ask your guests to wear a mask while they use your bathroom to cut down on opportunities for transmission.
“I would encourage people to use a mask when using the bathroom since it is unclear how much time may have passed since the prior person used the bathroom, and bathrooms tend to be poorly ventilated spaces,” Kuppalli said.
Emphasize hand washing.
As always, guests should wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water after using the bathroom in someone else’s home. Hosts should be sure to have paper towels or single-use hand towels for their guests to wipe their hands after washing.
“As a visitor, practice proper bathroom hygiene, including closing the lid before you flush, disinfecting all the surfaces you touched, washing your hands thoroughly, drying your hands using paper towels or a clean hand towel,” Yuan said. A new research paper suggests that flushing a toilet with the lid up may spread droplets that can carry the coronavirus.
Clean the area thoroughly.
“Plan on cleaning the bathroom before and after the event,” advised Sachin Nagrani, a physician and medical director for the telemedicine and house call provider Heal. “Instruct guests to note which surfaces they touch inside the home.”
Even if your guests don’t indicate that they touched certain spots, it’s best to give all high-touch surfaces a good cleaning to be safe.
“I would make sure to clean the bathroom thoroughly to protect health and safety ― this should be done even if not having someone use your toilet,” Kuppalli said. “I would clean high-touch areas such as faucets, light switches, toilet lids, toilet hands, countertops regularly to make sure they are appropriately disinfected.”
Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but it’s possible guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.
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