Coronavirus vs. cash: What's really happening?

Coronavirus fears are causing drastic changes in habits. Many people are working from home, which is causing changes to how they shop and how they make payments.

Cash is known to harbor pathogens such as E. coli, Salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus. It's not clear if the same holds true for coronavirus, but many people aren't taking chances.

Cash use will suffer because of this outbreak, and there are factors other than germs contributing to this trend. A growing work-from-home workforce will funnel more shoppers into digital channels, including ones they may have never tried before.

This story was compiled from reporting by PaymentsSource writers including John Adams, Kate Fitzgerald, David Heun, Michael Moeser and Daniel Wolfe.

Read more: Complete coverage of the coronavirus impact

cash at McDonald's drive thru
A customer hands an employee money for an order at the drive-thru of a McDonald's Corp. restaurant in San Pablo, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. McDonald's Corp., the world's largest restaurant chain, posted fourth-quarter profit that was little changed from a year earlier as U.S. same-store sales fell amid shaky consumer confidence and increased competition. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
Taking cash off the menu
Whether or not cash can transmit COVID-19, Dick's Drive-In isn't taking any chances. The Seattle burger chain Dick's Drive-In has asked its customers to pay with plastic whenever possible, as a means to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The chain will still accept cash, but the process will be much slower, as employees will have to undergo additional sanitation procedures for cash payments, The Seattle Times reports.

Experts say cash is not a major risk for COVID-19, but Dick's isn't alone in its concern. China has ordered banks to disinfect any cash they handle, and France's Louvre banned cash for ticket sales, the Seattle Times notes.
Worlpay contactless card reader
A customer holds a contactless debit card issued by HSBC Holdings Plc bank near a Worldpay Inc. payment terminal at a restaurant in this arranged photograph in London, U.K., on Monday, March 18, 2019. Fidelity National Information Services Inc. agreed to acquire Worldpay Inc. for about $34 billion in cash and stock, the biggest deal ever in the booming international payments sector. Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg
Going contactless
Contactless cards are a potential refuge for consumers who fear plastic and cash are carrying COVID-19.

The coronavirus has drawn attention to the safety and cleanliness of basic activities that many take for granted, such as air travel, being in enclosed places, or how transactions happen at stores. New research suggests U.S. consumers are becoming more interested in contactless payments.

“The coronavirus could be the tipping for contactless in the U.S. much like the liability shift was for EMV,” said Demitry Estrin, founder and CEO of the Futurist Group, a financial services and information management consultancy.

About 38% of consumers now see contactless as a basic need or feature of payments, up from 30% a year ago. The percent of consumers saying they don’t need contactless payments has fallen from 41% in March 2019 to 33% in March 2020.
A Deliveroo food delivery worker carries an insulated food bag in Hong Kong, China, on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020. A group of 59 Hong Kong police officers are being quarantined after a fellow officer preliminarily tested positive for the virus, the city’s police force said in a statement on Facebook. Photographer: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg
No-touch (and no-cash) delivery
Deliveroo, a London-based food ordering company, is launching a "no-contact" option that allows customers to order food without interacting with the delivery driver.

Drivers will instead leave food on the doorstep for the customer. Deliveroo will also let some customers order kitchen supplies and other household products. And in a no-contact delivery, payments would naturally be digital rather than cash.

Uber Eats allows its customers to request the same no-contact delivery by leaving a note in its app.
Al Kelly, chief executive officer of Visa Inc., speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., on Monday, April 29, 2019. The conference brings together leaders in business, government, technology, philanthropy, academia, and the media to discuss actionable and collaborative solutions to some of the most important questions of our time. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg
Not all card payments will benefit
Mastercard spoke up early about what most companies felt, but were afraid to say: Things were OK for now, but if coronavirus becomes a pandemic, all bets are off.

Visa CEO Alfred Kelly also advised caution, acknowledging the uncertainty that surrounds all companies in contemplating how to counter the virus and keep business losses to a minimum.

"When we look at our numbers in China, we see some declines, but the Chinese New Year was a month earlier this year and spending slows around that holiday period," Kelly said.

But things could get worse before they get better, Kelly said in January.

"There is going to be an impact when planes are being halted in and out of China and you are constantly reading, as we are, that companies are telling employees to stay home," he said. "So even in the e-commerce world, if employees are saying home, who is picking out the goods and shipping them?"
Stack of U.S. dollars
U.S. one-dollar bills are displayed in New York, U.S. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg
Is cash actually safer?
The spread of the coronavirus coincides with several online outages at financial companies including Robinhood, Vanguard and Fidelity — raising the question of whether this the right time to move away from digital payments and toward using more cash, according to The Wall Street Journal.

It might be the right decision to keep extra cash on hand. Banks are taking steps to make sure any cash they handle is sanitized. And consumers who favor mobile wallets might have just as much to worry about as those who handle cash, since smartphones can be "a haven for germs," the Journal notes.
A Tim Hortons coffee cup
A cup of coffee is displayed for a photograph at a Tim Hortons Inc. restaurant in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014. Burger King Worldwide Inc. agreed to acquire Tim Hortons Inc. for about C$12.5 billion ($11.4 billion) in a deal that creates the third-largest fast-food company and moves its headquarters to Canada. Photographer: Ben Nelms/Bloomberg
Rethinking loyalty
Loyalty programs often ask consumers to trade in coupons or other proof of purchase, and Tim Hortons is putting a stop to that practice.

Tim Hortons is altering its annual “Roll Up the Rim” promotion in light of germ risk from coronavirus, and shifting it into a 100% digital mode to drive membership in its loyalty program and higher use of the chain’s mobile payments app.

Tim Hortons already had planned to make changes in its 34 a-year-old promotion this year, adding a digital element to promote its Tims Rewards loyalty program, with prizes available digitally and on paper cups. The company's move will accelerate its shift to digital.

“Tim Hortons does not believe it’s the right time for team members in restaurants to collect rolled-up tabs that have been in people’s mouths during this current public health environment,” the release said.

Similarly, some Dunkin Donuts locations have stopped allowing its staff to use customers' refillable cups when serving coffee.
Amazon Echo Dot and Echo speaker
An "Echo Dot" device, left, and an "Echo" device stand on display during the U.K. launch event for the Inc. Echo voice-controlled home assistant speaker in London, U.K., on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016. The Seattle-based company today announced that its Echo product line will be available in the U.K. and Germany starting in the fall, the first time the gadget will be available outside the U.S. Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg
'Alexa, how can I shop without cash?'
Even with the coronavirus disrupting supply chains and causing local and online stores to run out of essentials such as toilet paper and cleaning supplies, there will still be a lot of digital commerce taking place.

Amazon's dominance of the smart speaker segment makes it well positioned to turn an increasingly work-from-home culture into a voice-shopping powerhouse.

As more Americans are working and studying at home as a precaution against the coronavirus (also known as COVID-19), Amazon’s 70% market share of the installed smart speaker base provides a chance to deepen the e-commerce giant's relationship with its customers.

“People are staying at home more, so they will have more time to discover how they can best use their speaker device. It’s no longer asking ‘what’s the weather?’ We’re moving beyond that stage," said Paul Michelotti, director and solutions architect at Avionos, a digital strategy and e-commerce solutions company.