Coronavirus and cash: Why consumers should be cautious, but not fearful of handling dollars

Full-blown panic likely isn’t necessary for the age of the coronavirus. But medical experts say consumers should be cautious, particularly with what they do with their hands after pulling out a wad of cash or making a withdrawal from an ATM.

COVID-19 mainly spreads through droplets released into the air when someone who’s gotten infected coughs or sneezes. But it can also be contracted through the surfaces we come into contact with, says Dr. Ellen Foxman, an assistant professor in Yale’s Department of Laboratory Medicine.

“It really can stay on surfaces for like, several days, including things you touch, like cash,” Foxman explains.

Just how contaminated dollar bills may actually be is one of many concerns consumers might have as they consider the financial implications of the coronavirus and the way they interact with banks.

Slim chance of catching the virus from cash

The United States now has the highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the world, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The virus is spreading rapidly, but the chance of being infected after handling cash is still low, experts say, compared to other methods of potentially getting infected.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, “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 is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

China’s central bank disinfected and did away with potentially tainted cash that could have been carrying the virus. But the U.S. Federal Reserve hasn’t gone quite that far.

“The Federal Reserve is in close contact with the CDC to ensure we are aware of the latest thinking on how COVID-19 spreads,” a spokesperson from the Fed says. “Currently, the CDC has determined that COVID-19 spreads mainly through person-to-person contact.”

Despite what was reportedly misunderstood in an article recently published in the U.K., the World Health Organization has not issued any warnings about the possibility of spreading the coronavirus through the use of cash.

While cash is no longer the No. 1 payment choice among American consumers, it’s used in more than one in four transactions. Avoiding cash for some groups, such as low-income households, may be just as unfeasible as avoiding touching a door handle. What’s more, for anyone concerned about catching the coronavirus, the best prevention method is perhaps just washing your hands, particularly before eating or touching your face, Foxman says.

Other banking-related concerns over coronavirus

Banks have already taken many steps to grapple with the spread of the coronavirus. Some, like Citi and Marcus by Goldman Sachs, are waiving early withdrawal penalties for customers with CDs. Others are waiving fees and allowing payments to be deferred.

Institutions like PNC and Trust (formed from the merger of SunTrust and BB&T banks) are mainly providing in-branch services through drive-thru lanes. And in many cases, customers have to make an appointment online before going into a branch. Banks have also adjusted their hours and reduced the number of time customers can be inside branches.

As the coronavirus spreads, this is a good opportunity for consumers to take advantage of their bank’s digital tools, says Bob Neuhaus, vice president of Global Financial Services at J.D. Power. But that could be difficult depending on where you bank and how familiar you are with digital banking channels. Neuhaus says quite a few consumers are still branch-dependent and half don’t even use their bank’s mobile app.

“What we call digital-centricity is much higher at the biggest banks than it is at the regional and midsize banks. The midsize banks and the regionals to some degree cater to a somewhat older clientele that’s less digitally-oriented,” Neuhaus says. “And I think there you may see more stress and disruption because people will have to change the way they do their day-to-day banking to a greater degree than somebody who’s much more digitally savvy and used to doing their banking online.”

A portion of bank customers are already adjusting the way they bank in light of the coronavirus. In a recent J.D. Power survey, 15 percent of respondents said they’re planning to use public touch screens such as ATMs and self-service checkout less due to concerns about the virus. Ten percent say they’ll visit branches less often.

“Banks have been focusing on the issue of business continuity, meaning keeping their doors open, keeping the business operating,” Neuhaus says. “But I don’t know if they’ve been able to prepare for the psychological impact and the need to help make their customers more comfortable with the situation and more confident.”

How consumers can prepare for the worst

Consumers should have their own financial plan in place as confirmed cases of the coronavirus increase.

This is a good time to focus on saving money in case conditions get worse. Banks and credit unions are lowering yields, but if you shop around and compare rates, you can find some paying close to 2 percent APY to savings account holders. Locking in a good yield on a CD is something to consider sooner rather than later. Stay tuned for the latest updates on the economic stimulus plan and consider how you’ll use payments the government is hoping to send directly to Americans.

For borrowers, it’s recommended that you over-communicate if you’re concerned about your ability to make payments on time as a result of the outbreak.

“Pad the emergency savings account and have contact info for your financial institution and other creditors handy in case you are quarantined or incapacitated for any period of time,” says Greg McBride, CFA, Bankrate chief financial analyst. “In such an instance, you’ll want to keep them in the loop regarding your situation.”

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