When then-San Francisco Supervisor Valle Brown proposed a law that required all the city’s stores to accept payments in cash, it’s unlikely she anticipated the crisis facing the globe today. Fears of transmission of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) via cash have spurred many restaurants in San Francisco and elsewhere to turn down the tender when processing orders — but experts say that cashless payment options pose similar risks, and the city says its laws regarding cash acceptance remain in place.
The city’s laws around cash went down last summer, a reaction to the rise of spots like Amazon Go, outposts of which were initially planned as involving app-based payments only. At the time, Brown said that storefront businesses that refused cash engaged in “discrimination” for requiring “customers to have bank accounts and a smart phone to purchase any items,” the SF Examiner reported at the time. The law “will go far in ensuring all San Franciscans have equitable access to the city’s economy,” Brown said, citing “young people, victims of ID theft, immigrants, and homeless people” as those locked out of app-based or credit-only operations.
These days, a quick spin through the Instagram accounts of restaurants that remain open for takeout and delivery tell a different tale, as many say that cash is no longer an option for payment for purposes of safety. Speaking with the SF Chronicle, however, UCSF professor of epidemiology and infectious disease expert George Rutherford says that “there is a very low likelihood of the virus passing from cash to person...It’s a relatively uncommon occurrence but that’s not to say it can’t happen.”
In fact, Rutherford tells the Chron, credit cards or cell phones pose just as much of a threat, if not more. “Viruses don’t just reside on just paper money, they’re on plastic as well,” he says.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), transmission of COVID-19 “is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person” either “between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet)” or “through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.”
“It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes,” the CDC says, “but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
Part of the fear of cash might be based in a widely-shared article from a UK-based publication earlier this month, one that was headlined “Dirty banknotes may be spreading the coronavirus, WHO suggests.” According to World Health Organization spokesperson Fadela Chaib, the article misrepresented WHO’s stance. “We did NOT say that cash was transmitting coronavirus,” Chaib tells MarketWatch. “We were asked if we thought banknotes could transmit COVID-19 and we said you should wash your hands after handling money, especially if handling or eating food,” he says, but “WHO did NOT say banknotes would transmit COVID-19, nor have we issued any warnings or statements about this.”
Gloria Chan, spokesperson for San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, says that at the local level, officials haven’t considered any cash-banning guidance, and in fact, the laws requiring cash acceptance are still in place.
“We’re not currently engaged in any discussions about a freeze on this important equity policy,” Chan tells the Chron. “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.”