British Columbia

Some Vancouver stores not accepting cash, and that's a problem for low-income people, councillor says

Coun. Jean Swanson said many low-income people don’t have bank accounts, debit cards or credit cards and cash is their only option. When stores don’t accept cash it leaves them with fewer options to buy food.

One woman says she was turned away by four stores that wouldn't take cash

A closed sign in a Vancouver shop window. Coun. Jean Swanson said she has heard from several Downtown Eastside residents that some stores in Vancouver would not let them pay in cash. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

A Vancouver city councillor says she's hearing some stores are not accepting cash over COVID-19 fears and she's worried about how that will impact low-income residents.

Coun. Jean Swanson said she's heard from multiple Downtown Eastside residents who have had difficulty buying food for themselves and their pets because the stores would not accept cash.

"It leaves you very frustrated and angry," Swanson said. "They were really ... hurt and thinking this isn't fair."

Swanson said many low-income people don't have bank accounts, debit cards or credit cards, meaning cash is their only option. When stores don't accept cash it leaves them with fewer options to buy food.

Swanson said she is looking into whether there are any legal remedies to persuade stores to take cash.

'It's humiliating'

Downtown Eastside resident Charlotte Zesati, 44, and her mother, 66-year-old Bronwyn Elko, said they were turned down by four stores Thursday in Mount Pleasant after they tried to pay with cash.

Zesati describes herself as a person with a low income. She works at a pizza parlour and keeps most of her money in cash. She had little money accessible on her debit card that day and doesn't have a credit card.

"It makes me feel less valued as a person," Zesati said. "I'm actually feeling a little bit more shut out than I normally would be.

"It's humiliating and it makes you feel scared about where can you go next?"

Elko said she understands the need for caution when it comes to handling money during a pandemic but feels cash should still be an option.

Push for contactless payments

Karl Littler, a spokesperson for the Retail Council of Canada, said his organization is pushing for shoppers to use contactless payment systems, like the tap function on debit or credit cards, but added retailers should still accept cash.

"It's not that cash is inherently all that problematic, but you are still touching surfaces," Littler said.

More important, he said, is for workers to be able to wash or sanitize their hands frequently and for customers to maintain appropriate physical distances.

"We're pushing, obviously, respect for retail workers working hard under difficult circumstances," he said.

Cash risks low

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control on its website says the risk of transmitting COVID-19 via cash is low, and is "expected to be similar to other common surfaces, such as doorknobs and handrails."

The centre recommends frequent handwashing for those handling cash. 

"Refusing cash could put an undue burden on people who depend on cash as a means of payment," the website reads.

Swanson said while she wants retailers to keep cash as an option in Vancouver, workers need to have adequate protections, like gloves and handwashing opportunities.


  • An earlier version of this story said Zesati was paid in cash. In fact, she is paid by cheque but keeps most of her money in cash.
    Apr 06, 2020 4:00 PM PT

With files from Jesse Johnston


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