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Opinion: 'Loophole' has Burnaby-New West restaurants wrongly closing washrooms

Writer says people with disabilities losing access
Some Burnaby businesses are closing their washrooms for customers.


An open letter to Dr. Bonnie Henry:

I’m writing to inform you of a loophole created during the height of the COVID epidemic which affects all residents of B.C., but especially the elderly and disabled.

Since the loophole appeared after the regulations and restrictions created by COVID and your department were enacted, I believe you have a responsibility to at least investigate the situation.

The loophole began with the closing of restaurants. Hundreds of businesses in B.C. are now using the guise of COVID safety to close or restrict access to their washrooms. Not from the general public, that is their right, but from their own customers, using the excuse/lie of “Provincial COVID regulations.”

When your department closed restaurants completely, I understood. When you allowed restaurants to only serve take-out, I understood why the washrooms might remain closed. However, when you removed all restrictions from businesses, why were/are they allowed to keep 1/2 or more of their washrooms closed from their paying customers?

Why are they allowed to close a customer washroom with a fake COVID note on the door, but then allow employees to use the same “closed” washroom? 

Or in one case, they boarded the male and female washrooms off with plywood and forced all customers to use the unisex/disabled washroom. Was this your intention with the COVID restrictions? If yes, why? If no, are you willing to investigate?

I have complained to the companies involved with limited success. The only change they have made was after the health inspector noticed the plywood blocking the doors. However, because these businesses know the regulation is unenforceable by any department, or the health officer themselves informed the business of the loophole, they can simply place an out-of-order sign on the door indefinitely. Problem solved for both the business and the health inspector. Neither need concern themselves about the patron, the customer, the human.

I am a disabled B.C. resident, and although I don’t consider myself a senior, I’m close to that period in my life and suffer from some of the effects of my age. The practices of these restaurants force me to remain at home and not participate in society as I once did. Was this the intention of your regulations?

I’ve also complained to the local health authority (Fraser Health), the City of Burnaby and the City of New Westminster. Fraser Health blames the city building code, the city blames the provincial code and the province does nothing to help either the city or the health inspector to plug the loophole. What do you suggest I do as a disabled resident of British Columbia? 

Who should I contact? Who will at least admit the intent of the building code is to provide customers adequate washroom facilities based on the size and activity of the restaurant?

Or does your department and the province of BC believe as long as the businesses meets the bare requirements of the law, it’s “good enough.”? Is the bare minimum the goal for health and welfare in B.C.?

I think you would agree that while it may not be unlawful to lie to a customer and say “it’s closed because of COVID”, it is at least “un-Canadian” to use a global health pandemic as an excuse to save a few dollars by not cleaning a perfectly functional washroom? One paid for by the profits created by the customer. Is this how BC will attract visitors back to the province? “Come to B.C., but bring your own port-a-potty, we don’t give a sh… ”

I’ve outlined my own experience below. I’ve BCC’d this email to as many media organizations I could find. I’m hoping one will see the inexcusable behaviour of our corporate citizens and investigate this further. I doubt this is a local issue, I suspect other businesses across Canada are also using this excuse to inconvenience customers.

If the media fails to respond, and you do not investigate, then I guess I’m wrong. I guess I should accept my age and my disability and never leave my house again. I guess I should allow corporations to use the loophole unabashed and without fear of reprisal. I guess B.C. isn’t a bastion of human rights, only corporate profits. 

What do you suggest Dr. Henry?

Below is a summary.  All the events took place in October 2021.

  • Tim Hortons: 6200 McKay Ave Unit 10, Burnaby, BC V5H 4L7 (604-434-3391)
    When asked why the male washroom was closed (for months), I was told by the staff; “COVID restrictions”. When I informed them there are no COVID restrictions in place, the manager stepped in and said it was broken and “the ‘owner’ had yet to fix it”.
    I complained to the company’s corporate website and have not received a response. They since placed a unisex sign over the woman’s washroom to “meet code”. The health inspector says they are within code using a single washroom. The city understands the code is unenforceable or is unwilling to intervene. Meanwhile to use a washroom at this facility you must wait in line and beg for an employee to open the door.
  • Tim Hortons: 9855 Austin Rd Unit 150, Burnaby, BC V3J 1N4 (604-420-2027)
    Boarded up the male and female washroom during COVID, refused to remove after the restrictions were dropped. I complained to the health department and Tim Hortons was asked to remove the plywood. But where not forced to re-open the washrooms. No response from the company’s head office or Fraser Health.
  • Tim Hortons: 805 Boyd St, New Westminster, BC V3M 5X2 (604-515-0132)
    While this is not a COVID related incident, it does demonstrate the unwillingness of a company to respect the health and welfare of their clients. This incident almost required police action to resolve.
    A month ago, I entered this Tim’s to purchase a coffee. An elderly female customer was asking the cashier for access to a washroom as there was a fire-door that was shut and locked, blocking access to the male, female and family washrooms.
    The cashier said “no” they were being cleaned.
    The elderly customer inquired why they were closed for 20+ minutes during the lunch hour?
    No response from the cashier.
    I asked “all three washrooms are closed at once? You cannot open one for this customer in need?”
    Still no response.
    A second customer suggests the elderly lady walk across the parking lot to Boston Pizza where they would most likely be more accommodating. Doubting her ability to walk that far in her current state of distress, she replied; “I can’t make it there”.
    I yelled at the cashier to open the washroom; my patience level exceeded by the inhumanity.
    An employee finally wakes up and opened the door for the customer in need.
    The customer found me and thanked me for my assistance before leaving the restaurant.

I complained to Tim Hortons and the owner did respond semi-adequately, however it’s clear the attitude of restaurant owners in British Columbia is that the customers should be grateful they provide washroom facilities at all. 

Should customers, the elderly, a parent with a baby, or a tourist be forced to beg for a key or a code, or find an employee willing to look you in the eye long enough to see that you may be in distress and need a washroom? Or is it the corporation’s responsibility to provide a washroom facility to their customers? Is it their job to provide a clean usable washroom or not? Should it not be easily accessible to customers or only the non-disabled? Is age and speech not a disability in British Columbia if it affects your ability to communicate your needs adequately?

COVID isn’t over, but could you put a little effort into reopening businesses at a level of service based on the intent of the law? Or is B.C. only open for the able bodied?

David Wourms, Burnaby