Cold, hard, hygienic money? BYU study finds going without cash was ‘useless’ to prevent COVID-19

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

Estimated reading time: 5-6 minutes

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

Many companies have started encouraging transactions with plastic debit and credit cards as a safety measure to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. After all, it seems logical that paying with plastic cards would be more hygienic, since money is handled by many different hands throughout its lifespan, whereas plastic cards are usually 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 couldn’t survive on paper bills and actually showed greater stability on credit cards. or plastic debit.

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

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

What they found essentially dispelled the idea that plastic cards were a safer way to pay than cash.

The team discovered that the coronavirus was difficult to detect on dollar bills just 30 minutes after being placed on them. The study found that the virus had been reduced by 99.9993% after 30 minutes. After 24 and 48 hours, the team found no live virus on the tickets.

Even more surprisingly, the researchers found that the virus only shrunk plastic cards by 90% after 30 minutes. The rate of reduction increased to 99.6% after four hours and to 99.96% after 24 hours.

However, the live virus was still detectable – albeit slightly – on the silver cards 48 hours later. The coins behaved similarly to plastic cards, with a strong initial reduction in virus presence, while still testing positive for live virus after 24 and 48 hours.

Essentially, cash and coins have proven to be a safer and more hygienic form of payment than plastic cards.

To further support their findings, the team collected new 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 silver, the researchers swabbed the surfaces and edges of the silver and coins with a sterile cotton swab.

They also took a collection of money cards and detected “no SARS-CoV-2 RNA on the banknotes or coins and only a low level of virus on the money cards,” according to a BYU press release.

“This pandemic has been infamous for people making decisions without data,” Robison said. “We have these people saying things and a lot of organizations blindly follow them without any data. It turns out that in this case they went in precisely the wrong direction.”

Ultimately, the study authors concluded that the use of credit and debit cards rather than cash as a COVID-19 prevention measure is not recommended.

Transition to cashless?

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

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

“Vivint Arena has had a very successful migration to a cashless digital environment over the past three seasons,” said arena spokesperson Frank Zang. “From digital tickets to enter the arena and on-site deliveries of Jazz merchandise to mobile ordering of food and beverages, customers have embraced this approach which results in faster service, less time in line. and smoother transactions.”

Although Vivint Arena’s decision to switch to a cashless system was not spurred by the pandemic, Zang said the decision has increased efficiency and there are no plans to return to acceptance. cash payments.

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

For cash-only Vivint Arena patrons, there are five card payment kiosks located in the Main and Upper Lobby and Atrium America First. There is no charge to use the machines, which will convert the money into a Mastercard prepaid debit card that can be used anywhere inside or outside the arena.

A survey by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. revealed that 2.5% of Utah households do not have access to a bank account, let alone a debit or credit card, leaving them to rely exclusively on cash and raising concerns about security issues. equity that could come from more businesses transitioning to a cashless model.

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

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

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

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