PORT ANGELES — Port Angeles has reopened 24/7 public restrooms in several locations across the city ahead of the holiday weekend.
The Port Angeles City Council voted unanimously, after a long discussion Tuesday, to reopen public restrooms across the city effective 4 p.m. Thursday.
These locations include the parking lot C between Family Shoe Store and Odyssey Book Store on Front Street, City Pier, The Gateway and Erickson Field.
“Following the council motion, city staff consulted with representatives from the ReDiscovery and Paramedicine programs to identify areas of current camping by individuals experiencing unsheltered homelessness,” Port Angeles City Manager Nathan West said later.
As of Thursday, these restrooms will remain unlocked until portable accommodations arrive. It is anticipated that in the next few days each of these locations will be equipped with portable restrooms, handwashing stations and garbage cans.
“The city will continue to evaluate the situation with these restrooms and may make adjustments or add additional facilities as necessary,” West said.
Council member Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin added the item to the agenda, asking that the council discuss the opening of public restrooms ahead of the holiday weekend per guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“The CDC has a number of interim guidance documents, and the one that we are discussing right now is the interim guidance on people experiencing unsheltered homelessness,” Schromen-Wawrin said.
“There are a number of things in this CDC guidance that we are already following … and I am proud of our staff for leading us in this work, but there are parts of the CDC guidance we are not following.”
Schromen-Wawrin said the CDC did not recommend the closure of public restrooms at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, though many cities and counties chose to close them.
He said the CDC recognized the need for public restrooms as places for unsheltered homeless folks to wash their hands and stay warm during the winter months, which in turn would help reduce the spread of the pandemic.
Restrooms in Port Angeles have been closed.
“We know handwashing is critical to public health, and access to public sinks and toilets is the city’s responsibility,” Schromen-Wawrin said.
“It is hypocritical for us to complain about public feces as we have numerous times in the past but then lock people out of public restrooms.”
Some of the hesitation to reopen the restrooms came from concerns about potential vandalism and destruction — which has happened in the past.
“I don’t disagree in principle, but I also feel like a jerk on some level, and saying that, I’m struggling with saying that I think this is the right solution because I don’t have a better solution,” Port Angeles Mayor Kate Dexter said.
“I feel like it’s the right thing to do and I don’t know that I feel like that we have the capacity to do it right.
“For example,” she said, “there was a nonprofit that had people in need of a restroom; they brought in a porta-potty and within 48 hours it was destroyed.”
Other concerns for the reopening of the restrooms were the financial impacts should the facilities be vandalized.
“I’m struggling because this is a late item and I don’t know the budgetary impacts of what this decision could be,” said council member Mike French.
“It’s the clear moral choice, but the timing is difficult.”
Schromen-Wawrin said federal funds the city has received in response to the pandemic could cover any potential work that would need to be done should the restrooms be destroyed.
“In terms of cost, we have been given millions of dollars to respond to the COVID pandemic, and I think following CDC guidance on potentially having to main some restrooms a little bit more is a very minor cost compared to the amount of money we’ve been given as a city to respond to the pandemic,” Schromen-Wawrin said.
Reporter Ken Park can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.