(TNS) — Even before the coronavirus came to the United States, cashless was becoming king.
Now, as retail businesses in the Capital Region and across New York prepare for the second phase of the state's economic reopening, business owners will be looking for more ways to reduce the number of hand-to-hand transactions taking place in their stores. One step they may take is enacting no-cash policies at the register.
"Retail is going away, and naturally people are shopping online for everything," said Brian Clark, an assistant professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Lally School of Management. "But even once you go in-person, I think we’re already moving toward cashless anyway. A lot of it’s here, and I think the pandemic will probably accelerate things."
Participants in a Federal Reserve survey published in 2019 used cash in 26 percent of their transactions, down four points from the previous year. The use of debit and credit cards, meanwhile, both jumped by two points — accounting for 28 percent and 23 percent of all payments, respectively. Cash is widely used for smaller purchases, accounting for 49 percent of transactions under $10 and 42 percent of payments less than $25.
"These trends were already coming, and it’s been sort of jump-started by the pandemic," Clark said.
Still, it is not quite clear how effective cash is at spreading the virus. The primary mode of COVID-19 transmission is through close person-to-person contact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said: "...it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads."
Plus, cashless does not necessarily mean touchless. Customers using a debit or credit card may still have to interact with a pin pad, or hand a clerk their card, for every transaction.
A cashless society can make life incredibly inconvenient for those who are poor or don't have access to a bank account, said Virginia Eubanks, an associate professor of political science at the University at Albany and author of 'Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor.' That includes anybody from undocumented immigrants who can't open a bank account because they don't have a government ID to folks who don't have the minimum funds to open an account and may not be able to afford various fees.
About 8.4 million households in the U.S. — or 6.5 percent — were unbanked in 2017, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. reported. More than half of those households said they did not have bank accounts because they could not afford to keep money in them. About 8.7 percent of households in New York were unbanked.
Cashless systems are also ripe for abuse, Eubanks said.
"The data trail that’s created by cashless transfers creates really a bonanza of opportunity for private companies and government agencies to spy on us, to track our movements, to track our purchases," Eubanks said. "It’s not really the state’s business if, for example, if I decide to go to a corner store and buy $200 worth of snacks near Sing Sing Prison, or a political protest, or a meeting of an unpopular political group. And that’s a good reason to use cash."
Cash is flexible, untraceable and maximizes peoples' autonomy, Eubanks said. A lot of informal work — gigs like babysitting and yard work — rely on the currency.
Since the CDC has not indicated that cash is a major vector of the virus, Eubanks said people should consider why society is trudging toward cashless systems in the middle of a pandemic.
"Sometimes interested parties use disaster to push through solutions that they already had in their drawer," Eubanks said. "I suspect one of the reasons cashless transfers are so popular is there’s so many ways to make money on them. It’s the perfect way to pop people in small and often unnoticeable ways — one percent there, three percent there, a fine here, a fee there — and make literally billions of dollars because of the scale that we’re talking about."
Those fees are exactly why Matt Baumgartner, owner of Wolff's Biergarten, which has locations in Albany, Troy, Schenectady and Syracuse, instituted a cash-only policy.
"When we first opened, I wanted to open them in the most simple way possible and the way that would be most profitable," he said. Card companies take three to four percent of every transaction. That may not sound like much, Baumgartner said, but it adds up.
Other venues owned fully or partially by Baumgartner, including June Farms in West Sand Lake, The Berlin in Troy and The Olde English Pub in Albany, have all accepted cards. Wolff's will follow suit once it's re-opened, Baumgartner said.
"We do certainly care about peoples' safety, so we are going to be taking credit cards in the beginning," he said. "I can't promise it will continue forever."
There's nothing wrong with expanding the means by which people can make purchases, Eubanks said. But don't consider a cashless society to be an end-all, be-all solution.
"I’m all for expanding the number of routes to payment," Eubanks said. "I’m just saying that cash is still a really good, really useful technology that lots of people rely on. There’s no reason at all — particularly because it doesn’t look like a major vector of transmission — to push for a cashless society, except for because it potentially offers such incredible profits and so many opportunities for social control."
©2020 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.