- Rick McCrabb
- Mike Rutledge Staff Writer
The heroin epidemic, which already is straining public safety budgets, now is changing how some local businesses operate.
Several local businesses have taken measures to reduce the possibility of patrons overdosing on their property.
The McDonald’s restaurant on Verity Parkway in Middletown has issued remote buttons that allows cashiers to unlock the restrooms for their customers and the entrance door closest to the restrooms is marked “exit only.”
A manager at the Middletown McDonald’s said he couldn’t comment about the new safety steps.
The corporate office, in an email, wrote: “The safety and well-being of customers and employees is our top priority, and we have taken appropriate measures to ensure a positive experience while in our restaurant.”
In the first eight months of this year, Middletown police have filed 49 reports at the Verity McDonald’s, five more than the entire 2016, according to police records reviewed by this newspaper.
This year’s reports include 10 drug complaints and five overdoses. Some of those complaints have been for illegal activity inside the restaurant, while most have occurred in the parking lot, according to the records.
Rick Pearce, president of the Chamber of Commerce serving Middletown, Monroe and Trenton, said he understands the issues facing businesses and organizations that are open to the public.
“While it is sad that businesses that deal with the general public have to go to such measures to ensure the safety of their customers and employees, I do feel that the community at large understands why they have moved in that direction,” Pearce said.
Middletown police also said they have been notified that other local fast-food restaurants and retail stores have locked their public restrooms as a way to keep illegal activity from occurring.
Rodney Muterspaw, Middletown’s police chief, said he believes addicts use drugs in public places so they can be found in case they overdose. If they overdose at home, he said, someone may not find them before they can be revived.
He noted that overdoses are down 25 percent in the city in the last three months.
Middletown Fire Chief Paul Lolli said more than in public restrooms, his department is seeing an increase in overdoses in parking lots, including convenience stores, fast-food restaurants, even churches. Drivers also have overdosed while stopped at intersections, he said.
Lolli said he often wonders what’s happening in a public restroom.
“My gosh, who’s in your bathroom now,” he said.
He said security “is a problem” for business owners.
“It’s a concern,” he added.
Middletown resident Anne Gilmore, 34, said whenever she takes her three children, ages 5, 7 and 11, to a public place — a restaurant, library or amusement park — she’s hesitant sending her children into the restroom alone. She closely monitors how long her children are in the restroom and if anyone enters or leaves.
“You can’t be too careful,” said Gilmore, who added when she was a child her parents were worried about her getting abducted by a stranger.
“Now, as parents we’re worried about people overdosing in front of our kids. This is a different world we’re living in,” she said.
Georgia Thorton, 73, of Hamilton, agreed.
“It’s hard to feel safe anywhere,” she said while downtown. “People get on (heroin) and you don’t know what they will do.”
The entrance doors to the men’s and women’s restrooms at MidPointe Library’s Middletown branch have been removed, but that was based on the architect’s recommendation because it made the rooms more handicap-accessible, said Cari Hillman, public relations director at the library.
She also noted the library, 125 S. Broad St., has trained staff and off-duty Middletown police officers to ensure every effort is made to keep the library safe.
Some restrooms in Hamilton have been closed due to drug usage.
The first-floor restrooms on the city’s side of the Government Services Center were closed because of drugs and public indecency, said Hamilton Director of Public Safety Scott Scrimizzi. People are directed to the second-floor bathrooms, which are near the court security checkpoints on both sides of the building, he said.
Access to the first-floor restrooms on the county’s side of the building has also been limited. Those restrooms are open during business hours when there is an event scheduled.
The Butler County Juvenile Justice Center has been a “substantial drop” in vandalism after the county spent $38,000 to fix the destruction in the first-floor restrooms three years ago, said Tim Myers, Information & Administrative Services Manager. He said the bathrooms feature material and finishes that are difficult to vandalize and he credited surveillance cameras and more patrolling for the drop in illegal activity.
In the past, people had trashed the bathrooms ripping a mirror off a wall in the men’s bathroom, graffiti decorated the stalls and walls, counter tops were cracked, and sinks flooded, officials said.
One Hamilton business owner recently spoke to City Council about the illegal activity outside her business at the corner of South Edgewood Avenue and Commerce Street.
Darleena Thenot, who owns Edgewood Denture, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary, said she realizes Hamilton has “an extreme problem, but something has to be done.”
She told council: “I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”
Thenot was overcome with emotion talking about the illegal drug activity she sees in areas of the city..
“I work hard,” she said. “My husband works hard. I don’t want to see our business going down because of these issues.”
She’s cleaned up vomit near her business and people have urinated on nearby buildings, she said.
Thenot said she wasn’t putting the police “down.” She said her father is a retired Hamilton police officer and her brother recently retired from the Butler County Sheriff’s Office.
“It’s everywhere,” she said of the drugs.
“I don’t have time for any of this, but I’m willing to make time to see what we can do for the area,” she told council.