ATM industry battles coronavirus-era anti-cash bias

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The ATM industry was already mired in the painful transition away from hardware to digital technology, and now it must try to persuade consumers and merchants that cash isn’t unsafe to handle.

Scarred by broad messaging in recent months from retailers and others suggesting that handling cash can spread coronavirus, the ATM Industry Association this week launched an ATM and cash “revival” plan to improve ATM hygiene and promote contactless cash withdrawals.

The organization is developing global standards for ATM hygiene and safety, providing hand sanitizer at ATMS, adding keypad overlays to machines, finding ways to cleanse money within the ATM and promoting contactless technology to withdraw cash without touching equipment, according to a press release.

“The ATM revival plan will include global protocol for ATM hygiene for what we believe will be a hygiene-conscious society after COVID-19,” said Mike Lee, ATMIA’s CEO, in the release.

In a timely technology breakthrough, Caixabank this week announced plans to roll out ATMs across Spain that use facial recognition technology to dispense cash, according to a report from ComputerWeekly.com.

A top concern for the ATMIA is exploring how the CDC’s revised guidance on the threat of coronavirus spread through handling cash.

“We are suggesting that the CDC or some other entity should run tests on the transmission of COVID virus from cash to humans,” said David Tente, the ATMIA’s executive director, in an email.

The ATMIA also is stepping up its campaign against retailer initiatives banning cash acceptance in the U.S., Europe, Canada and Australia, the press release said.

In the last couple of years the ATM industry has successfully lobbied against merchants refusing to accept cash, with several states and cities passing laws preventing stores from refusing to accept cash in New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco. Those moves caused Amazon to retool its payment acceptance policies at its cashierless Amazon Go stores nationwide.

The ATMIA also backed legislation proposed last year to block all U.S. merchants from banning cash, on the basis of protecting retail access for unbanked consumers and others who opt to operate primarily in cash.

But coronavirus has set that movement back considerably, with many merchants spontaneously encouraging consumers to pay with credit or debit cards to minimize contact with cash.

Nordstrom and Lululemon are among the national retailers that recently announced when they reopened they would not accept cash. Lululemon said on its website that the sportswear chain would not accept cash for the first 30 days after opening stores gradually beginning in May, and would “reassess” its cash-acceptance policies afterwards.

One of the ATMIA’s objectives is to encourage ATM cash withdrawals powered entirely through consumers’ mobile devices with no requirement to touch the machine.

In the interim before this option becomes more widely available, the ATMIA encourages the use of banking apps that streamline the process, minimizing contact. “Some online banking apps might entail just a single touch of the ATM to complete, and perhaps none if NFC is enabled,” Tente said.

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