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Cold, hard, sanitary cash? BYU study finds going cashless to prevent COVID-19 was ‘useless’

Liz Atkinson, manager of the Quicksilver store at the Outlets at Traverse Mountain in Lehi, cleans a terminal after a transaction on May 1, 2020. Many businesses began encouraging transactions with plastic debit and credit cards as a safety measure to fight the spread of COVID-19. Now, a study from BYU says that plastic payment cards are actually worse for carrying the coronavirus than cash and coins.

Liz Atkinson, manager of the Quicksilver store at the Outlets at Traverse Mountain in Lehi, cleans a terminal after a transaction on May 1, 2020. Many businesses began encouraging transactions with plastic debit and credit cards as a safety measure to fight the spread of COVID-19. Now, a study from BYU says that plastic payment cards are actually worse for carrying the coronavirus than cash and coins. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

PROVO — The pandemic changed a lot of day-to-day activities, including how we pay for goods and services.

Many businesses began encouraging transactions with plastic debit and credit cards as a safety measure to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus. After all, it seems logical that paying with plastic cards is more sanitary, as cash is handled by many different hands throughout the course of its lifetime while plastic cards are typically only handled by the card owner.

Now a new study from Brigham Young University, first published in PLOS ONE in late January, found the virus could not survive on paper bills and actually showed greater stability on plastic credit or debit cards.

“Early in the pandemic, we had this massive outcry for businesses to stop using cash; all these businesses just followed this advice and said, ‘OK, we are credit card-only,'” said study author Richard Robison, a BYU professor of microbiology and molecular biology. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute, where is the data to support that?’ And there simply wasn’t any. We decided to see if it was rational or not, and turns out it was not.”

To conduct the study, the research team — consisting of BYU professor Julianne Grose and undergraduate BYU students — collected $1 bills, quarters, pennies and plastic cards, which were then inoculated with the virus that causes COVID-19. Then, the cash, coins and cards were sampled and tested for virus detection at four different time points afterward: 30 minutes, four hours, 24 hours and 48 hours.

What they found essentially dispelled the notion that plastic cards were a safer means of payment than cash.

The team discovered that the coronavirus was difficult to detect on the dollar bills just 30 minutes after being placed there. The study found that the virus was reduced by 99.9993% at the 30-minute mark. At the 24 and 48-hour marks, the team found no live virus on the banknotes.

Even more surprising, researchers found that the virus only reduced 90% on plastic cards at the 30-minute mark. The reduction rate increased to 99.6% at the four-hour mark and 99.96% at the 24-hour mark.

However, the live virus was still detectable — albeit only slightly — on the money cards 48 hours later. The coins performed similarly to the plastic cards, with a strong initial reduction in virus presence, yet still testing positive for the live virus after 24 and 48 hours.

Essentially, cash and coins showed to be a safer, more sanitary form of payment than plastic cards.

To further substantiate their findings, the team collected fresh samples of $1 bills, quarters and pennies from BYU’s campus and local restaurants to test them for the presence of the virus. Within an hour of obtaining the money, the researchers swabbed the surfaces and edges of the cash and coins with a sterile cotton swab.

They also swabbed a collection of money cards and detected “no SARS-CoV-2 RNA on the banknotes or the coins and only a low level of the virus on the money cards,” a news release from BYU said.

“This pandemic has been infamous for people making decisions with no data,” Robison said. “We have these people just saying things and massive numbers of organizations just follow it blindly without any data. It turns out in this case, they went precisely the wrong direction.”

When all was said and done, the authors of the study concluded that the use of credit and debit cards over cash as a COVID-19 prevention measure is not advisable.

Transition to cashless?

In 2019, before COVID-19 hit the U.S., Vivint Smart Home Arena, home of the Utah Jazz, moved to a cashless payment system for all arena transactions to “improve speed of service and enhance the fan experience,” said a statement from Vivint.

In January 2020, initial testing of the cashless environment revealed that cash-free transactions resulted in a 10% to 30% reduction in time spent in line for concessions.

“Vivint Arena has experienced a very successful migration to a cash-free, digital environment over the past three seasons,” arena spokesman Frank Zang said. “From digital tickets to enter the arena and in-seat deliveries of Jazz merchandise to the mobile ordering of food and beverage, guests have adopted this approach which results in quicker service, less time standing in lines, and smoother transactions.”

Although the decision for Vivint Arena to move to a cashless system wasn’t spurred by the pandemic, Zang said that the move has increased efficiency and that there are no plans to move back to accepting cash payments.

“Vivint Arena is committed to a cashless experience,” Zang said.

For Vivint Arena guests who only have cash, there are five cash-to-card kiosks located throughout the main and upper concourses and the America First Atrium. There is no fee to use the machines, which will convert cash to a Mastercard prepaid debit card that can be used anywhere inside or outside the arena.

A survey from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. found that 2.5% of Utah households have no access to a banking account, let alone a debit or credit card, leaving them to rely exclusively on cash and raising concerns over equity issues that could come from more businesses transitioning to a cashless model.

“You’re leaving, not a huge part of our population, but some of the most vulnerable in our whole state behind,” said Clint Cottam, executive director of the Community Action Partnership of Utah.

Under state law, Utah businesses have leeway to accept any form of payment and don’t have to accept cash. However, Utah State Treasurer David Damschen said, “No business succeeds by running entirely against what its consumers require, need or want.”

Logan Stefanich is a reporter with KSL.com, covering southern Utah communities, education, business and military news.

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