Maura Healey reminds businesses it remains illegal to refuse cash over coronavirus fears

The fears also may be overblown.

Cashiers at a grocery store sanitize a card reader and the checkout area, Thursday, March 26, 2020, in Quincy, Mass., as an extra precaution out of concern about the spread of the coronavirus. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Cashiers at a grocery store sanitize a card reader and the checkout area in Quincy. –Steven Senne / AP

Across the country, stores have recently begun refusing — or at least strongly discouraging — the use of cash due to fears that paper money could be a vector of the coronavirus.

And while Maura Healey says she understands the need to take “extra precautions” in the midst of the pandemic, the Massachusetts attorney general issued a reminder Wednesday to local businesses.

“It’s illegal to refuse cash in Massachusetts,” Healey tweeted. “Businesses should take thoughtful measures to keep their employees and consumers safe, but let’s keep our economy open to everyone.”

Even in an increasingly cashless world, requiring the use of credit or debit cards remains illegal in Massachusetts; a 1978 state law states: “No retail establishment offering goods and services for sale shall discriminate against a cash buyer by requiring the use of credit.” Citing civil rights statues, a growing number of jurisdictions — including New York City this past January — have also recently moved to ban cashless businesses, citing concerns about the effect on lower-income individuals without bank accounts.

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“Not everyone has a credit card, and consumers should not face economic barriers to accessing necessary goods and services,” Healey said.

Even as many brick-and-mortar shops have been forced to close due to the coronavirus outbreak, many essential businesses that remain open have asked customers not to use cash over concerns that dollars bills could transmit the highly contagious disease.

However, as the Associated Press reported last month, health experts say the risk of transferring the virus through the use of paper money appears to be low, especially compared to the person-to-person contact officials have advised people to avoid. The World Health Organization also pushed back on the notion that cash was transmitting the coronavirus, after a British newspaper “misrepresented” the intergovernmental agency’s advice.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the virus is mainly believed to be spread between people who are in close contact with one another or through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

A study in the New England Journal of Medicine last month did find that the coronavirus was detectable for up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel, but virus particles are unlikely to return to the air once on a surface, according to the AP. As the report noted, the virus particles are just as capable of living on credit cards and ATMs, not to mention people’s oft-touched smartphones.

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Julie Fischer, a health science professor at Georgetown University, said on C-SPAN last month that it was “theoretically” possible that the virus could live on dollars bills if an infected person sneezed or coughed into their hands and then handled the money. However, she said any concerns could be mitigated by simple hand washing.

“It’s not impossible that there might be traces of virus on dollar bills, but if you wash your hands it should provide adequate protections,” Fischer said. “You shouldn’t need anything else.”


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