Health

Can stores refuse my money? Your COVID-19 cash questions answered

We're answering your questions about the pandemic. Send yours to COVID@cbc.ca and we’ll answer as many as we can. We’ll publish a selection of answers every weekday online and also put some questions to the experts during The National and on CBC News Network.

From retailers refusing your cash to whether it needs cleaning, your burning money questions answered

Some stores, such as this one in San Francisco, are requesting customers use debit and credit only. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

We're breaking down what you need to know about the pandemic. Send us your questions via email at COVID@cbc.ca, and we'll answer as many as we can. We'll publish a selection of answers every weekday on our website, and we're also putting some of your questions to the experts on the air during The National and on CBC News Network. So far, we've received more than 45,000 emails from all corners of the country.

Is it legal for a store to refuse my cash?

More businesses are going cashless during the COVID-19 pandemic and are asking customers to use debit, credit or app payments as a precautionary measure.

But some readers, such as Samar D., are asking if it's legal for a retailer to reject payment in cash.

The short answer is yes, a store can refuse to take cash. But it's a little more complicated than that.

The Bank of Canada says it's up to sellers to determine what kinds of payment they will accept for transactions, and there is "no law" that would require anyone to accept bank notes or any other form of payment for a commercial transaction.

However, in certain circumstances, refusing to take cash in a store may actually violate provincial human rights codes. 

Michael Bryant, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), warns that a store's no-cash policy could inadvertently discriminate against seniors, people who are disabled, impoverished or people who just don't have credit or debit cards.

"Not only does this hurt their ability to transact, but it threatens their food security," Bryant said.

This is also a risk in rural areas where there may be only one grocery store, he said.

"So [retailers] need to use their discretion."

WATCH | How to handle cash during the pandemic:

With recent efforts to limit the spread of germs and reduce contact, a look at how to handle cash during a pandemic. 0:56

What can I do if a store won't take my cash?

Not being able to pay for food and other necessities adds "another layer of anxiety to an extremely stressful existence," said Bryant.

So if you're told you can't pay with cash, he said it's worth contacting your provincial human rights commission or the CCLA. 

"Somebody needs to tell that store owner that they need to develop a system for the rare cases in which cash is the only option," he said.

And even if stores say they prefer plastic only, it's worth asking if they can make an exception.

Some retailers — like the Metro grocery chain in Ontario and Quebec — say they're encouraging customers to use cards, but they'll still take cash if it's the only option.

Why is there such a fuss over accepting cash?

While there is no specific danger in using cash as opposed to any other sort of physical interaction, health authorities around the world are urging people to keep touch to a minimum. 

That would include handing over bills and coins from one person's hand to another.

But there is something else you should be thinking about when it comes to payment, said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

"The buttons on a credit/debit machine would be riskier than cash, because those same buttons are being pressed by the tip of oily fingers and lots of them — constantly," he said in an email. 

Experts agree that when using debit or credit for purchases during the pandemic, it's best to 'tap' your card on the terminal when you can to prevent touching the pinpad. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

"It's the tip of the finger that then goes in the eye, nose and mouth," he said. "Tap to pay would be safest."

Then there's all the other things you're touching: "Merchandise, counters, door handles, and we can add cash to the list," Furness said. "It doesn't represent a new or increased risk. It's one of a long list of reasons to carry hand sanitizer and use it."  

And as always, no matter what, physical distancing, good hand hygiene and being aware of what you're touching are the best things you can do to keep yourself safe.

How long does the virus last on bills and coins anyway?

We know the novel coronavirus lasts on different surfaces for different amounts of time, but we don't know exactly how long the virus could last on different types of money.

According to that research, it could last longer on coins than bills.

"Coronavirus will last up to three days on a hard metal or plastic surface at room temperature," said Furness, referring to a study done in April

The softer the surface the shorter period of time the virus lasts, he said. And though the virus starts to degrade or break down right away, it can take up to three days for it to be totally gone.

If you're still not confident, Furness recommends letting your money sit for a while.

"Assume three days, and you are very safe," he said. "Even one day would be low risk. I wouldn't bother trying to disinfect money. I'd let it sit instead."

But if I want to disinfect my money? 

If cleaning your cash makes you feel better, the Bank of Canada says soap and water will do the trick on polymer bank notes because they're resistant to moisture. 

But don't use disinfectant wipes or other products containing bleach or rubbing alcohol. The central bank says these substances can damage the notes to the point where they may not be recognizable as legitimate money.

It's also a bad idea to wash older paper bills which, unlike polymer notes, aren't resistant to moisture.

As for debit and credit cards, a disinfecting wipe or cotton pad with alcohol will work — as will a non-abrasive soap mixed with water. 

A spokesperson from the Royal Bank of Canada says it won't damage the magnetic strip or the chip.


Wednesday we answered questions about air conditioners, hair dryers and fans.

Keep your questions coming by emailing us at COVID@cbc.ca.

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