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  • Writer's pictureThe Pink Elephant Lady

Should Retailers No Longer Accept Cash Because of COVID-19?

“People are worried that money will carry the virus.” Sorry, but that’s not enough. Evidence, please? Science? Has there ever been one single solitary documented case anywhere in which someone got sick from handling money?

For most people, in this era of contactless payments and Apple watches, this is not a big deal. For the poor, the young, and others who do not have credit or bank cards, this can be a real hardship. Cashless transactions are very quick and convenient for those who have money or credit, even more so if you have an Apple Watch. A lot of retailers aren't interested in you if you don't. -

Whether it’s reusable bags, refillable cups, or cash money, let’s not let COVID-19 allow corporate interests like the plastics and petroleum industries and retailer organizations to scare us into abandoning practices that protect the environment or ensure that unbanked people can still shop inside stores.

Bottom line is, abandoning cash handling is more convenient for shopkeepers. No bank trips, no counting, less hassle. and some will claim concerns about crime. It would be super easy to say ‘Oh, no, CORONAVIRUS! No more cash!’ so that you look virtuous in your decision to abandon cash because it’s a “sanitary/health measure”, not simply a way to make your life easier and ensure that people who don’t have a credit or debit card can’t shop in your store. And then you don't have to acknowledge that you're fearful about theft and hold-ups (what a messy issue!); you can just say 'we're protecting the health of our customers and staff). Sounds so much more virtuous! But the convenience of the shopkeeper should not override a commitment to being inclusive.

"It seems unfair to me that I can walk into Sweetgreen, get a salad, but the person behind me that has the monetary unit the United States of America has used for centuries can’t get that same product. That’s not intentional, but it is discrimination.” - Philadelphia City Councilman Bill Greenlee

Until there is a form of electronic/no cash payment that is accessible to all, refusing to accept cash in a city with one of the highest unbanked and underbanked rates in the entire country, is bad policy. Of large cities with more than than 100,000 households, Miami and Detroit have the highest rates of unbanked households in the country – approximately 1 in 5 households are unbanked . In Miami, an additional 21.3% of households are underbanked, and in Detroit, an additional 29.3% of households are underbanked.

Is it even legal? It is - shockingly, there's no federal law on the books that states a business must accept cash. But municipalities are increasingly enacting their own laws to prohibit businesses from refusing to take cash. And there’s been pushback from some lawmakers who say not accepting cash is a form of discrimination.

The ACLU has also come out against cashless businesses, even calling on consumers to boycott cashless businesses. According to ACLU Senior Policy Analyst Jay Stanley, cashless policies are:

  • Bad for low-income communities. Participation in a cashless society presumes a level of financial stability and enmeshment in bureaucratic financial systems that many people simply do not possess. Opening a bank account requires an ID, which many poor and elderly people lack, as well as other documents such as a utility bill or other proof of address, which the homeless lack, and which generally create bureaucratic barriers to participating in electronic payment networks. Banks also charge fees that can be significant for people living on the economic margins. According to government data from 2017, about one in 15 U.S. households (6.5%) were “unbanked” (had no checking or savings account), while almost one in five (18.7%) were “underbanked” (had a bank account but resorted to using money orders, check cashing, or payday loans). Finally, because merchants usually pass along the cost of credit card fees to all their customers through their prices, the current credit card system effectively serves to transfer money from poor households to high-income households, according to a study by the Federal Reserve.

  • Bad for people of color. The burden of lack of access to banking services such as credit cards does not fall equally. While 84% of white people in 2017 were what the Federal Reserve calls “fully banked,” only 52% of Black and 63% of Hispanic people were.

  • Bad for the undocumented. Facing a lack of official identity documents, not to mention all the other obstacles mentioned above, undocumented immigrants can have an even harder time accessing banking services.

A credit or debit card allowing a person to avoid coming into the store entirely, to get groceries and other retail purchases curbside or delivered, is a good thing, but it's not good that so many people are unable to participate. Contactless curbside pickup and delivery is pretty much impossible to do with cash. This isn't fair, and I don't know how to fix it. Ohio has announced a program called “Click and Collect” that will allow families to order groceries online and pick them at the store without leaving the vehicle. Stores using wireless point-of-sale machines will be able to scan a customer’s EBT card right there. I don't see how you can process a transaction like this and keep the CDC recommended 6 feet of distance away, but it's a start.

The USDA now has more than a dozen states enrolled in its pilot program to allow retailers to accept SNAP benefits online - Michigan isn't one of those states. (Otherwise, SNAP transactions must be done in person because only the benefit recipient can enter their PIN). Food security/anti-hunger activists are calling for fast-track implementation of the online pilot as the nation is gripped by COVID-19. And even when/if Michigan gets on board, little stores like mine probably won't be able to accept SNAP benefits online or for delivery anyway - Amazon and WalMart are pretty much the only retailers approved for the pilot program (there's a couple more large retailers in the program in some states).

Two thirds of business owners say they will NEVER become cashless. And my business is one of them.

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