A recent Politico Magazine headline asked, “Is the Coronavirus Killing Off Cash?”
Even before COVID-19, an increasing percentage of Americans were using non-cash payment options, including credit cards and apps like Venmo, PayPal, Cash App, Apple Pay, and Google Pay. Now pandemic-era social distancing measures have made many customers even more reluctant to physically handle cash, a surface which can carry the virus for two to three days.
More and more businesses are declaring themselves cash-free, and that’s legal. “All United States money… are a valid and legal offer of payment,” the Treasury Department explains. “There is, however, no federal statute mandating that a private business, a person or an organization must accept currency or coins as payment for goods and/or services. Private businesses are free to develop their own policies on whether or not to accept cash unless there is a state law which says otherwise.”
States including Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Jersey have banned businesses from refusing cash.
What the legislation does
The Payment Choice Act would mandate all retail businesses accept cash as a valid form of payment. It would also ban a business from charging a higher price for a cash payment than for other forms of payment.
The legislation only applies to physical brick-and-mortar stores, exempting sales by internet (such as Amazon), by telephone, or by mail order.
The fine for breaking the law would be up to $2,500 for the first offense, and up to $5,000 for any subsequent offense.
The House version was introduced in May 2019 as bill number H.R. 2650, by Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-NJ10). The Senate version was introduced more than a year later on July 1 as bill number S. 4145, by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ).
What supporters say
Supporters argue the legislation helps groups who are less likely to have credit cards or cashless technology, including older people and the less well-off.
“While I fully understand that businesses have expanded their contactless payment options during the pandemic, refusing cash discriminates against certain populations and denies people equal access to the same goods or services,” Sen. Menendez said in a press release.
“The truth is: not everyone carries a credit card or uses cashless apps, and customers paying with cash — legal tender printed and backed by the U.S. Treasury — should not be denied goods or services,” Sen. Menendez continued. “Our bipartisan, commonsense legislation would guarantee everyone — including those who are unbanked or underbanked –- can continue to participate in the economy.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that going cashless has advantages for both large and small businesses alike, and that a law banning the possibility would run increasingly counter to a consumer- and market-driven trend.
“For a company like Amazon, doing without cash means speeding or eliminating the checkout process, including getting rid of long lines at peak times,” Progressive Policy Institute Chief Economic Strategist Michael Mandel wrote in an op-ed. “For small retailers, the advantages are fewer losses from cash theft and much simplified operations, especially in high-crime areas.”
“We don’t think that in five years laws that ban stores from going cashless are going to look smart,” National Retail Federation General Counsel Stephanie Martz told NPR.
Odds of passage
The House version has attracted 47 bipartisan cosponsors: 35 Democrats and 12 Republicans. It awaits a potential vote in the House Financial Services Committee.
The Senate version, sponsored by a Democrat, has attracted one Republican cosponsor, Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND). It’s unclear why that chamber’s version has attracted such smaller cosponsorship; while it’s been out for less time, it’s still been more than two weeks. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.