More and more businesses are turning away from cash, fearing that the virus could be sitting on banknotes and coins, as it changes hands from person to person in everyday transactions.“Looking at the situation with COVID-19 getting worse, we decided to switch,” said Eileen Rinaldo, owner of Ritual Coffee. “Cash is notoriously covered with germs, and it’s a matter of eliminating that point of contact.”
The reluctance to take cash is emerging even though San Francisco ordered most businesses to accept cash last year, out of a concern that the trend to cashless payments was shutting out those without access to smartphones and credit cards. The city said it’s still enforcing the rule and does not plan to lift it temporarily. “We’re not currently engaged in any discussions about a freeze on this important equity policy,” said Gloria Chan, spokeswoman for the Office of Economic and Workforce Development. “As a city, we still need to ensure everyone can purchase goods, whether or not they have access to credit or noncash forms of payment.” Still, fears of cash abound. Other companies, like food delivery service DoorDash, are providing cashless options for payments. And on Saturday, cash toll collection on all seven Bay Area bridges was temporarily suspended under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s orders, to curb the spread of the virus.
But public health experts say the risk of the virus passing from cash to people is small, and that contactless forms of payments — phones and debit or credit cards — are no better than cash.“My impression is that there is a very low likelihood of the virus passing from cash to person,” said George Rutherford, a UCSF professor of epidemiology and an infectious disease expert. “It’s a relatively uncommon occurrence but that’s not to say it can’t happen.” Cash does carry a risk of transmitting the virus, Rutherford said, but the chances are far smaller compared with other methods. Credit or debit cards and phones are just as likely to be transmitters of the disease.
“Viruses don’t just reside on just paper money, they’re on plastic as well,” Rutherford said.The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the virus is thought to be mainly passed between people in close proximity by respiratory droplets, such as coughs and sneezes. The novel coronavirus can live on surfaces such as cardboard for up to 24 hours and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, in a scientific paper published early in the outbreak. The researchers did not test whether it can live on cash.For Ritual Coffee, stringent precautions are necessary for its workers and its survival as a business. Only three of its six locations are open amid the shelter-in-place order that saw “nonessential” businesses close. Coffee shops, considered essential, can operate on a to-go basis only.
Ritual Coffee doesn’t observe an outright ban (people can pay with cash if that’s all they have, Rinaldi said) but the emphasis on cashless payments is made clear with notices plastered on the shop’s wall and on its website asking customers to use Apple Pay or a credit or debit card. Not cash. The virus is the main reason for the switch, but Rinaldi says safety concerns are also paramount. “We’re operating out of the doorway here (Valencia Street location) and we don’t want a lot of cash sitting in the register,” she said. “My whole business has changed. We’re pivoting to selling items like liquid soap, which is a need, and loaves of bread instead of pastries.”
Before this year there was only one jurisdiction that required businesses to accept cash: Massachusetts, which passed a law nearly 40 years ago.“The potential societal cost of a cashless economy I think outweighs the potential benefits for businesses,” said Ritchie Torres, a New York City councilman for the South Bronx who introduced the bill.