Photo By: Pina Messina from Unsplash

One of the earliest methods for preventing the spread of COVID-19 was the decision by many businesses to stop accepting cash. It made sense at the time; there were so many unknowns about COVID-19 and one of them was whether or not it could spread on surfaces. With front-line workers already putting themselves at risk, keeping them safe by minimizing the amount of things they had to touch in order to perform their jobs made sense. 

All that being said, I’ve never been a fan of businesses going “card-only,” even back in March 2020 when it made the most sense. Now, especially considering the things we’ve learned about the virus, namely that surface transmission risk is quite low, I don’t think there’s any reason for a business not to accept cash. 

My reasoning on this really comes down to one simple fact: not everybody has, carries, or even has the ability to get a debit or credit card. It might sound like a nitpick or a minor complaint, after all, who’s over the age of 18 walking around without a bank account or a debit card? But there are any number of reasons for why someone might prefer cash to plastic payment options. 

Personally, I like being able to see how much money I have right in front of me, it keeps me from spending money I don’t really have. When I was a kid and my parents sent me to the store to pick something up at the last minute before dinner, I certainly didn’t pay with a debit card, I paid with the $20 bill they handed me. 

People’s preferences when it comes to payment are valid and worth considering, but it’s also important to consider people’s needs and financial situations. For a lot of us, it’s hard to imagine the concept of being able to “afford,” a bank account, but it’s a real situation that a lot of people might find themselves in. At many financial institutions, there’s a minimum balance required to set up an account, if someone can’t afford that, they can’t afford a bank account. If they do have the minimum required balance, they might be able to set up an account, but then there are service fees to contend with. For someone with an income, service fees are just a part of life, but for someone without an income, or with an unsteady income, service fees can quickly drain a bank account of all of their cash. 

There is no law in Canada that requires a business to accept cash, which leaves it up to the business to decide. There are, however, circumstances where refusing to accept cash could violate provincial human rights codes. Grocery stores, for example, need to meet people’s food necessities. Refusing to accept cash would threaten that.

In March 2020, the Bank of Canada released a statement urging retailers to continue accepting cash. 

“Refusing cash purchases outright will put an undue burden on those who depend on cash and have limited payment options,” the statement said. 

Obviously, the most important thing is ensuring that people who rely on cash payment are able to meet their basic necessities, food security being the big one. It’s not just grocery stores and other essential businesses that should continue accepting cash though, it’s everywhere. 

The pandemic is by no means over, but as we look to come out the other side of it, there exists a very real possibility that many businesses will take the opportunity to remain card-only. For many, this won’t affect the way they access goods and services, but it’s a very subtle way of barring people in poverty, senior citizens, people with disabilities, people experiencing homelessness, and anyone else who might pay exclusively using cash, from a business. 

There are ways to safely handle cash, and after 18 months of COVID-19, we can understand what they are. Frequent handwashing for one thing, minimal contact and gloves are all options.

Living through a pandemic introduced us to the concept of essential vs. non-essential businesses. A grocery store is essential, the craft aisle at Walmart is not. That might prompt some to say that only essential businesses should have to accept cash. I can see where that argument might come from, but in my opinion, it’s not a valid one. Being cash-only isn’t a choice for many people and is often indicative of a larger challenge, whether that be homelessness, disability, or poverty. Just because someone’s circumstances don’t allow them to carry cards, doesn’t mean that they should be denied access to the goods and services that everyone else has access to. 

Businesses know what they’re doing in these situations. Things like anti-homeless architecture (think metal bars in the middle of benches) and loitering laws were all designed to keep people deemed undesirable out of public spaces and publicly accessible businesses. Card-only policies will fall into this same category. Businesses will say it’s happening for one reason when their true motivation will lie in keeping so-called ‘undesirables’ from frequenting their store locations. 

Whether a business is essential or not, refusing to accept cash is a form of covert discrimination and should not be allowed.