going concern

For Fine Relief, Stores Could Open Their Restrooms to the Public

A Greenwich Village restaurant advertises its lack of public bathroom.
A Greenwich Village restaurant advertises its lack of public bathroom. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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New Yorkers in search of a bathroom may soon find more places to go.

A program that would give retailers the chance to get financial penalties forgiven in exchange for opening their restrooms to the public has gotten a green signal from City Hall.

The city Department of Consumer and Worker Protection issued a study this month on a proposed “penalty mitigation program” for retail establishments — and determined the concept could work.

That means the agency will now help get such a program going, as directed by a 2018 law. Participating businesses will have to keep their restrooms open whenever they are open to the public, except between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., and keep their facilities clean.

Fines on any one of 47 types of violations of city rules and law —  including absent price displays, improper scanner accuracy and failure to have information in English — could be waived by the consumer watchdog agency, just for opening up the loo.

Those fines can range from $75 to $500 for the first offense, under city rules.

A department spokesperson said the program won’t roll out until the city Law Department and Mayor’s Office of Operations review and certify rule amendments.

And business owners shouldn’t even think about relying on restrooms to get them off the hook again and again.

“Only first-time violations are eligible for the waiver,” noted Melissa Barosy, a Department of Consumer and Worker Protection spokesperson.

A Win-Win

The move was triggered by a City Council bill introduced in 2017 by then-Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is now running for a congressional seat in The Bronx.

Mark-Viverito’s bill also called for a report on the feasibility of a program for restaurants and other food retailers that would allow them to waive certain civil penalties if they donate excess food. But city officials found that wasn’t “feasible or appropriate.”

Mark-Viverito, who wasn’t aware of the report’s completion until contacted by THE CITY, said that city government should be further challenged to counter the problem of food waste.

“They’re saying it’s not feasible, but only because they don’t have the experience with it,” she said. “So, I guess the question is, well, you could do more research, figure out a way to implement something like this and address a challenging problem that we should not ignore.”

Meanwhile, the bathroom program, she said, will be a win-win — especially for families with children and the homeless.

“It’s not like people willy-nilly are peeing on the street because they want to,” she said. “There’s challenges. So, the issue of public restrooms, availability and accessibility, is something that the city needs to take seriously.”

For small business owners, she said, they get a chance to avoid paying fines.

‘Unintended Consequences’

The Department of Consumer and Worker Protection — formerly the Department of Consumer Affairs — hasn’t always backed the idea.

When the City Council’s Small Business Committee first considered a penalty mitigation program, a department official expressed concerns about “negative unintended consequences.”

“We are concerned this package could undermine consumer and worker protection laws passed by this Council in ways that outweigh the potential public policy initiatives,” testified Amit Bagga, then deputy commissioner of external affairs.

The measure, left unsigned Mayor Bill de Blasio, automatically became law a month after the City Council passed it unanimously.

When asked by THE CITY what concerns the department may now have about the bathroom plan, Barosy said, “We will monitor and address any issues with the program once implemented.”

Two Perspectives

William Pedone, owner of Van Nest Hardware in The Bronx, said his business and many others on Morris Park Avenue are in good standing with the city. But if the program were available as a way to help them alleviate fines, “I don’t think that would be too much of an issue,” he said.

Pedone said he already allows most customers to use his restroom.

The owner of clothing store Alpha Swagg in Brooklyn, who identified himself only as Modou, said he won’t be participating in the program because opening bathrooms to public poses too much of a lawsuit risk.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said.

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