Now that Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in response to the hepatitis A outbreak that has killed at least 20 San Diegans, he may wish to examine his own backyard.
Capitol Park, the majestic 40-acre greenspace surrounding the state Capitol in Sacramento, has become a place where people defecate amid the trees and shrubs after hours, creating the same deadly health hazards as in San Diego.
The problem? The park’s public restrooms maintain a rigid business-hours-only schedule, staying open only in the daytime.
Hours – set by General Services’ Capitol building management and the California Highway Patrol – are too restrictive for a beautiful, historic landmark that draws visitors far into the night.
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Those restrooms, in a tiny leaf-covered brick building south of L and 13th streets, are currently closed for an ongoing renovation that will cost more than $268,000, according to the state Department of General Services. Additional costs are being negotiated by the department, which administers the park at the direction of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Rules.
During the remodeling, three portable unisex restrooms have been clustered at the park for public use. The port-a-potties keep the same hours as the park’s permanent restrooms – open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekends.
Those hours – set by General Services’ Capitol building management and the California Highway Patrol – are too restrictive for a beautiful, historic landmark that draws visitors far into the night.
But changing the restroom schedule is not in the works.
“There are still no plans to expand the (bathrooms’) hours of operation at this time,” General Services spokeswoman Monica Hassan said Oct. 16 by e-mail.
This means the permanent restrooms will revert to the same inhibitory schedule when they reopen by January – unless someone acts.
Why not extend the hours until at least early evening?
Unsanitary conditions – including lack of access to public restrooms and hand-washing facilities – have been blamed for the hepatitis A outbreaks in San Diego, Los Angeles and Santa Cruz counties. Hence Brown’s Oct. 13 emergency declaration.
After-hour visitors to Capitol Park aren’t just homeless people. They also include dog walkers, joggers, tourists and cyclists. In one way or another, many are inconvenienced by the restrooms’ pre-sunset lockdown.
One Saturday at roughly 4:10 p.m., before the renovation began this summer, I saw a well-dressed man dashing toward the men’s room, nearly slamming into the black wrought-iron door, which had been locked minutes before. “Holding” what needed to come out, he hastened away in frustration.
As a downtown resident I often exercise at Capitol Park, where I have seen the excrement left by people who had nowhere else to go at night. After the sun goes down, some park visitors do their private “business” behind buildings flanking the park.
In the daytime, of course, any Capitol Park visitor can use the restrooms inside the Capitol after clearing security, a time-consuming process that is not an option at night.
The fact that some Capitol Park visitors evacuate their bowels after dark in its hidden places “is a public safety issue,” another General Services spokesperson, Michael Liang, acknowledged to me.
Doesn’t that suggest expanding the bathrooms’ hours?
“Again, this is a public safety issue,” Liang responded.
He emphasized, however, that the park’s permanent restrooms have been repeatedly vandalized in their aging 350-square-foot building. And certainly, there’s always the concern that vandalism may increase in the evening.
The new restrooms should be less vulnerable to damage and more user-friendly when they’re finished; new toilets, urinals and wash basins will be stainless steel, with white epoxy coating, and an access sidewalk is being widened to help the facilities fully comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Couldn’t security guards help the CHP safeguard the restrooms in the evening? Perhaps part of their salary could be paid with contributions from Capitol Park users.
Aware that our downtown desperately needs public restrooms, Sacramento city and county officials are discussing ways to keep this region hepatitis A-free. That conversation should include the administrators of Capitol Park.
Edgar Sanchez is a former staff writer at The Sacramento Bee. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.