As a consumer, my primary experience with cash before the virus was standing in checkout lines observing the sluggish pace of cash transactions in front of me. Like so many things in our lives, the advent of the virus has changed the situation markedly. From the earliest days of infection, it has been far more unsettling to observe cash transactions knowing that the virus persists on paper and metal surfaces for days.
The dynamic that has driven the choices merchants offer in face-to-face retail transactions will change as well. Driven by the private exigencies of the retail environment, the last few decades have witnessed private mechanisms spreading cash-less retail transactions, predominantly card-based. In some countries, policymakers have supported that spread, reacting to the societal costs of a heavy reliance on cash by adopting rules that limit or even aim to eliminate the use of cash.More recently in this country, however, as a few businesses have refused to accept cash, local policymakers have pushed back, reasoning that a refusal to accept cash excludes less affluent purchasers (frequently unbanked) from fair access to commerce. Among others, Massachusetts,New Jersey,New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco have banned cashless businesses. Indeed, the present Congress has considered two bills that would extend such a ban to the federal level.The likelihood that Amazon’s cashier-less stores (Amazon Go) would refuse cash payments has been a particular stimulant to those bills.
This essay makes two basic points about the effect of the virus on that mix of policy, legal, and institutional arrangements. First, policies fostering the use of cash in retail transactions are much harder to justify in the world of the virus, as it is harder to make those transactions safe for purchasers, cashiers, or the populace in general. Second, the slow pace of the shift from card-based payments from swipe to chip, with the slower drift to phone-based payments, is more worrisome now, where fully contactless payments are safer for all involved than authentication either by swipe or chip.
Ronald J. Mann,
Driver for Contactless Payments,
Law in the Time of COVID-19, Katharina Pistor, Ed., Columbia Law School, 2020
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/2689