Seemingly out of fears that folding money or giving change poses a threat of coronavirus transmission, many San Francisco restaurants, cafes and coffee shops have announced they will only accept credit card or app payments. It’s a practice that violates San Francisco law, the city’s police chief reiterated Monday, saying citizens who observe restaurants or other businesses refusing to accept cash payments should report it to authorities.
Monday’s press conference wasn’t the first time the issue had been raised. When the Bay Area’s shelter was first ordered in March, Gloria Chan, a spokeswoman for San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, said the city’s law requiring all businesses to accept cash payments will remain in effect. “We are currently not discussing freezing this important equity policy,” Chan said at the time. “As a city, we must continue to ensure that everyone can purchase goods, whether they have access to credit or non-cash means of payment.”
Despite this claim, a significant number of restaurants that remain open for takeout and delivery publicly state that they no longer accept cash. Some, like coffeehouse chain Philz, have even made it a selling point: the latter told the SF Chronicle In April that customers can only order “via the Philz Mobile App”. When asked by Eater SF, a Philz spokesperson confirmed: “All orders must be facilitated by the customer via their mobile phone and the Philz app.” When asked how this worked with SF’s cash acceptance policy, the spokesperson said: “The Philz Team has nothing to add to your question.”
But on Monday, San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said businesses that refuse to accept cash are breaking the law. “The cash acceptance regulation is still in effect,” Scott said Monday. “It wasn’t suspended. And I want to remind everyone what the point of this is – this is about justice. Not everyone has a credit card or ATM card, and people need basic services.”
Scott’s words echo those of then-District 5 supervisor Vallie Brown, who successfully passed legislation in 2019 All retail stores in San Francisco must 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 said to comply for over a year. At the time, Brown said the law was intended to “reveal the discrimination and elitist nature of the [no cash] Business model where customers need bank accounts and a smartphone to buy items.”
Brown, of course, didn’t foresee the pandemic when she proposed her legislation, and many restaurants and cafes say the cash waiver is to protect workers who handle cash at risk of infection. In conversation with the SF Chroniclehowever, UCSF Professor of Epidemiology and Expert in Infectious Diseases George Rutherford says that “there is a very small chance that the virus could spread from cash to a person… It’s a relatively uncommon event, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.” According to Rutherford, credit cards or cell phones pose just as great a threat because “viruses live not only on paper money, but also on plastic”.
According to that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) it is believed that transmission of COVID-19 “spreads primarily from person to person,” either “between people who are in close contact with each other (within about 6 feet)” or ” through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.”
“It is possible for a person to 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.” says the CDC“but this is not considered the main route of spread of the virus.”
Fact checking organizations like Snopes say fears of cash as a virus transmission medium may have started a much shared article from a UK-based publication, headlined “Dirty banknotes may spread coronavirus, WHO suggests.” According to World Health Organization spokeswoman Fadela Chaib, the article misrepresented the WHO stance. “We did NOT say that cash transmits the coronavirus.” Chaib says MarketWatch. “We were asked if we think banknotes could transmit COVID-19 and we said wash your hands after handling money, especially if you’re handling or eating food,” he says, but “WHO has NOT said banknotes would transmit COVID-19, nor have we issued any warnings or statements in this regard.”
And yet these fears seem to exist. This correspondent, for example, witnessed firsthand the rejection of a cash sale last week. A bakery offering home cooking staples refused to take cash from a woman trying to buy flour, saying it was “no longer allowed”. When the woman said she didn’t have a credit card, the worker just said she was sorry and there was nothing she could do. Another customer offered to take the cash and pay for the woman’s purchase with a credit card, but otherwise the cardless woman would have been unlucky.
Situations like this are why the law exists, Scott says, because it’s about “making sure everyone in our city has access to what they need. That’s the spirit of it.”
Scott says when people come across businesses that don’t comply with the Cash Acceptance Act, “the right place to go is to call our non-emergency number — that is, if you need a police officer to respond to resolve the issue.” . This is 415-553-0123.”