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 plastic debit and credit card transactions as a security measure to help prevent the spread of COVID to counter -19. Now, a BYU study says plastic payment cards are actually worse for carrying the coronavirus than cash and coins. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

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PROVO — The pandemic has changed many day-to-day activities, including how we pay for goods and services.

Many companies have begun to encourage plastic debit and credit card transactions as a security measure to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. After all, it seems logical that paying with plastic cards is more hygienic, as cash is handled by many different hands over its lifetime, while plastic cards are typically handled only by the cardholder.

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

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we had a massive outcry for companies to stop using cash; all these companies just followed this advice and said, ‘Okay, we’re only credit cards,'” said study author Richard Robison, a researcher. BYU professor of microbiology and molecular biology. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute, where’s the data to back that up?’ And it just wasn’t there. We decided to see if it was rational or not, and it turned out not to be.”

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

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

The team found that the coronavirus was difficult to detect on the dollar bills just 30 minutes after it was placed there. The study found that the virus was reduced by 99.9993% after 30 minutes. After 24 and 48 hours, the team found no live virus on the notes.

Even more surprising, researchers found that after 30 minutes, the virus only reduced by 90% on plastic cards. The reduction percentage increased to 99.6% at the four-hour marking and 99.96% at the 24-hour marking.

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, but still tested positive for the live virus after 24 and 48 hours.

In essence, cash and coins proved to be a safer, more hygienic form of payment than plastic cards.

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

They also examined a collection of money cards and found “no SARS-CoV-2 RNA on the notes or coins and only low levels of the virus on the money cards,” according to a BYU press release.

“This pandemic is notorious for people making decisions without data,” Robison said. “We have these people who are just saying things and huge numbers of organizations are just following it blindly without any data. In this case, it turns out they’ve gone exactly in the wrong direction.”

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

Switch to cashless?

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

In January 2020, the first tests of the cashless environment showed that cashless transactions resulted in a 10% to 30% reduction in time spent queuing for concessions.

“Vivint Arena has had a very successful migration to a cash, digital environment over the past three seasons,” said arena spokesperson Frank Zang. “From digital tickets to enter the arena and in-seat deliveries of Jazz merchandise to mobile food and drink ordering, guests have adopted this approach, resulting in faster service, less time waiting in line and smoother transactions.” .”

While the decision for Vivint Arena to move to a cashless system was not spurred on by the pandemic, Zang said the move has increased efficiency and there are no plans to go back to accepting cash payments.

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

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

An investigation by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. found that 2.5% of Utah households don’t have access to a bank account, let alone a debit or credit card, leaving them reliant on cash alone and concerned about equity issues that could come from more. companies moving to a cashless model.

“You’re not leaving a large portion of our population, but some of the most vulnerable in our entire state,” said Clint Cottam, executive director of Utah’s Community Action Partnership.

Under state law, Utah businesses have leeway to accept any form of payment and are not required to accept cash. However, Utah State Treasurer David Damschen said, “No business succeeds by going completely against what its consumers need, need, or want.”

Logan Stefanich is a reporter at, covering Southern Utah communities, education, business and military news.

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