Many people have stopped using cold, hard — and dirty — cash in favor of debit, credit, or contactless forms of payment. Transferred from one person to the next, money is susceptible to picking up a whole host of germs. And naturally, when the coronavirus hit, this left people questioning if cash was safe, while many businesses started encouraging cashless forms of payment.
But do we really need to be concerned about getting the coronavirus from cash?
‘The likelihood of getting COVID-19 from touching money is extremely low.’
With months of research behind us, our knowledge of COVID-19 has changed, and so too has the way experts think about surfaces, like that of paper bills and copper coins.
“When we look at transmission patterns, they are happening from person to person,” says Neal Goldstein, assistant research professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University. “Surface transmission is really a negligible component of transmission of coronavirus, and the likelihood of getting COVID-19 from touching money is extremely low.”
There’s evidence that the virus can live on surfaces for days. But as the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention reports, the coronavirus most commonly spreads from person to person between people who are in close contact (within about six feet), through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. Although less common, COVID-19 can also spread through airborne transmission — exposure to the virus through small droplets and particles that can linger in the air for minutes to hours. Even more rare, says the CDC, is surface transmission.
Regardless, washing your hands is still important.
“If someone who was sick coughed directly on a surface, and you contacted that surface with your hands and put your hands in your face, that would probably be an effective way to transmit the virus,” says Goldstein. “It’s such an extreme case and highly unlikely to happen in everyday occurrence, but it still suggests that hand hygiene is important.”
You don’t need to routinely wipe down your credit card or run loose change under the faucet. But you should continue regularly washing your hands. It’ll negate any risk, albeit low, that does exist from picking up the coronavirus from bills, coins, debit cards, and other surfaces, and it helps prevent the spread of other viruses like the flu, too.
Your main concern when it comes to shopping, however, is the other people around you. This can create situations where it may be better to use a card over cash when possible.
Contactless forms of payment are often still safer.
“Contactless payment helps limit contact between individuals, and it’s easier to maintain six feet of distance,” says Dr. Utibe Essien, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.
Technically, contactless payment refers to any transaction where you tap a card or other device near a point-of-sale terminal equipped with contactless payment technology. There’s no need to swipe, enter a personal identification number (PIN), or sign for a transaction. The quick tap speeds up the checkout process.
But even just swiping your own credit card can help you maintain more distance from a cashier who’s ringing you out. This benefits both people involved.
Using cash shouldn’t be stigmatized.
However, there shouldn’t be a stigma around using cash right now. Again, the risk of spreading the coronavirus from bills and coins is low, and the window of time you generally interact with a cashier is short.
“Some businesses are trying to pursue all cashless transactions but unfortunately that has a repercussion of discriminating against people that don’t have credit,” says Goldstein. “To say they don’t want to take cash because of the virus, that’s an incorrect approach to take and the evidence doesn’t support that.”
Approximately 7.1 million U.S. households are unbanked, meaning they don’t have access to a bank account, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s (FDIC) 2019 biennial survey. The reasons vary, from not being able to meet minimum balance requirements to a distrust in the banking system.
While the percentage of unbanked households has declined across the past decade, it continues to largely affect people of color. Approximately 14% of Black households and 12% of Hispanic households are unbanked.
In 2019, Philadelphia became the first city in the U.S. to ban stores from going cashless. The coronavirus hasn’t affected that, and for good reason, says Goldstein.
“Transmission through cash is low, and it shouldn’t be viewed as an irresponsible way to pay for something,” says Goldstein.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.
Neal Goldstein is an assistant research professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University.
Dr. Utibe Essien is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.