Seemingly due to fears that folding money or change poses a coronavirus transmission threat, many of San Francisco’s restaurants, cafes, and coffee shops have announced that they will only accept payment via credit card or app. That’s a practice that’s against San Francisco law, the city’s police chief reiterated Monday, saying that citizens that observe restaurants or other businesses refusing to accept cash payments should report them to the authorities.
Monday’s press conference wasn’t the first time that this issue has been raised. When the Bay Area’s shelter in place was first ordered in March, Gloria Chan, a spokesperson for San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, said that the city’s law requiring all stores to accept payments in cash would remain in effect. “We’re not currently engaged in any discussions about a freeze on this important equity policy,” Chan said at the time. “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.”
Despite this assertion, a significant number of restaurants that remain open for takeout and delivery publicly say that they no longer accept cash. Some, like the Philz chain of coffee shops, have even made it a selling point: The latter told the SF Chronicle in April that patrons can only order “through the Philz mobile app.” When contacted by Eater SF, a Philz spokesperson confirmed “all order must be facilitated by the customer using their mobile phone and the Philz app.” When asked about how this worked with SF’s cash acceptance policy, the spokesperson said, “The Philz team does not have anything to add regarding your question.”
But on Monday, San Francisco Police Department Chief Bill Scott said that businesses that refuse to accept cash are breaking the law. “The ordinance about accepting cash is still active,” Scott said Monday. “It has not been suspended. And I want to remind everybody what the spirit of that is — this is about equity. Not everybody has a credit card or an ATM card, and people need essential services.”
Scott’s words echo those of then District 5 Supervisor Vallie Brown, who in 2019 successfully passed legislation requiring all San Francisco storefront businesses to accept cash payments. The law doesn’t apply to pop-ups or food trucks, but all brick-and-mortar restaurants (and other SF businesses) have been expected to comply for over a year. At the time, Brown said that the law was intended to block the “discrimination and elite nature of the [no cash] business model which requires customers to have bank accounts and a smart phone to purchase any items.”
Brown, of course, didn’t foresee the pandemic when she proposed her legislation, and many restaurants and cafes say that going cash free is for the protection of workers, who run the risk of infection by handling cash. 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.” According to Rutherford, credit cards or cell phones pose just as much of a threat, as “viruses don’t just reside on just paper money, they’re on plastic as well.”
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.”
Fact-checking organizations like Snopes say that fears of cash as a virus transmission agent might have started with a widely shared article from a UK-based publication 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.”
And yet, these fears seem to persist. This correspondent, for example, witnessed the denial of a cash sale firsthand last week. A bakery that was offering home cooking staples refused to take cash from a woman who was attempting to buy flour, saying that it “isn’t allowed anymore.” When the woman said that she did not have a credit card, the worker just said she was sorry and that there was nothing she could do. Another patron offered to take the cash and pay for the woman’s purchase by credit card, but otherwise, the cardless woman would have been out of luck.
Situations like that one are why the law exists, Scott says, as it’s about “making sure that everybody in our city has access to what they need. That is the spirit of this.”
Scott says that if people come across businesses that “are not abiding by” the cash acceptance law, “the proper venue is to call our non-emergency line — that’s if you need a police officer to respond to help resolve that. That’s 415-553-0123.”