Art by Braden Leung

Palo Alto ought to implement a ban on cashless stores

It seems most establishments see cash as a thing of the past — and with the spread of COVID-19, a cashless economy seems closer to reality than any time in recent history.

A growing number of stores, including food and retail, have implemented cashless policies due to COVID-19 out of fear that the virus can spread more easily through cash.

However, the risk of COVID-19 transmission through cash is low and cashless economies can be discriminatory. Palo Alto ought to ban stores from rejecting cash so all citizens can have the freedom to purchase the goods they need.

A recent study conducted by the Bank of England on Nov. 24, 2020 showed the COVID-19 transmission risk from handling cash is low.

The study said the associated risk of infection after the cash is contaminated, even at high levels, is minor because the persistence of the virus on a paper bill declines rapidly to around 5% of the initial level six hours after contamination.

Before the pandemic, only a few stores rejected cash, the most well known locally being Sweetgreen in downtown Palo Alto.

For two years, Sweetgreen was cashless until it started receiving backlash from critics who said cashless stores are a form of discrimination. By the end of 2019, all of Sweetgreen’s locations accepted cash. In an April 2019 statement, the company said going cashless came with the consequence of excluding customers who prefer to pay or can only pay with cash.

Sweetgreen’s switch from cashless to accepting cash shed light on the discrimination that lies behind a cashless economy.

This type of economy discriminates against customers who don’t have access to lines of credit or a mobile payment system, many of whom are already marginalized in society. Palo Alto banning stores from rejecting cash would be a step toward reducing discrimination in the city, and it wouldn’t be the first place to do so.

Since 1978, Massachusetts has required all its businesses to accept cash; Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York City and San Francisco have since also passed similar laws that ban stores from being cashless.

The San Francisco legislation states, “The City must remain vigilant in ensuring its economy is inclusionary and accessible to everyone. The purpose of this (law) is to ensure that all City residents — including those who lack access to other forms of payment — are able to participate in the City’s economic life by paying cash for goods and many services.”

Palo Alto should follow suit. By forcing stores to accept cash, Palo Alto’s economy, like San Francisco’s, will become more inclusive.

Supporters of a cashless economy say going cashless would bring an end to cash-based criminal activity such as money laundering, robberies and fraud, while also decreasing transaction time because counting change would no longer be required.

But while the idea of a cashless economy seems beneficial in some respects, a cashless economy should only be supported when every citizen, no matter their economic status, has access to a bank or line of credit. As such, we should not encourage moving to a cashless society while there are still Palo Alto residents whose only form of payment is cash.

Palo Alto should join the cities and states that have begun the movement against cashless stores to make the city’s economy more inclusive.

An economy that includes everyone, no matter their economic status, is a step forward in eliminating discrimination.