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Bill would require SC shops to open restrooms

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — A South Carolina representative wants stores to open up their restrooms for patrons who need to go, but business groups oppose his measure, saying it's a costly mandate.

A bill requiring every shop and convenience store in South Carolina to provide access to its bathroom upon request is up for debate Tuesday by a House panel.

Rep. Robert Williams said he introduced the measure after accompanying an elderly relative to a dollar store. She was there to shop, he said, but when the urge struck, she wasn't allowed to use its facilities. That can be a problem, especially for elderly shoppers who take medication causing a more frequent need to go, he said.

"We had to end up leaving the store. I just feel if merchants are going to actually sell products to customers, the least they can do is have one bathroom customers can use," Williams, D-Darlington, said Monday. "We have it at Walmart and K-Mart. I don't see why these other small merchants can't fix that."

Williams said it's meant to apply to people who intend to buy something, not those treating a store like a roadside rest area.

However, the language broadly refers to any customer or potential customer walking through the door.

No store is exempt. The measure applies to any business selling "tangible personal property," which by definition means any touchable item other than real estate, from calculators to computers to cars.

Nationwide, 14 states passed similar laws between 2005 and 2011, though most narrow the requirement to people with medical conditions who need immediate use of restrooms, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Groups opposing South Carolina's measure include the state's chamber of commerce and retail association.

The cost of providing public restrooms to nonpaying customers includes cleaning supplies, plumbing maintenance, bathroom size and number of stalls, said retail association spokeswoman Christie Burris. While many stores provide public access to their facilities, that's a business decision, she said.

Williams was unfazed by the complaint.

"They sell cleaning products," he said. "I'm sure they can write it off."

The measure's chances seem slim. Two of 12 co-sponsors reached Monday were noncommittal.

It's is on the agenda Tuesday in a Labor Commerce and Industry subcommittee. Its chairman, Rep. Mac Toole, said he opposes it as a burdensome overreaction.

"It's totally unfair," said Toole, R-West Columbia. "This is not the way to resolve that issue. ... This would be an absolute nightmare to impose on small business people out there."

Currently, the state doesn't even require restaurants to have public restrooms, though regulations mandate restrooms for employees, who must meet sanitary hand-washing requirements. Only local ordinances govern public facilities in restaurants, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.