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Legal Matters: ‘We don’t take cash.’ Coronavirus brings payment concerns

A woman walks into a Westminster store to shop for shoes, selects a pair and then tries to pay for them – with cash.

“We don’t take cash,” the checkout clerk tells her. The clerk refuses to accept any form of payment other than a credit card, check, money order or store-issued voucher. The customer argues that U.S. currency is legal tender throughout the nation, and must be accepted, by law, in payment of any debt.

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Was the store policy of refusing to accept cash in payment for the shoes a violation of law?

No, according to the U. S. Treasury Department website, www.treasury.gov/resource-center/faqs/currency/pages/legal-tender.aspx.

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The website refers readers to the Coinage Act of 1965. It is somewhat confusing, because the website cites a section of the act that says, “United States coins and currency (including federal reserve notes and circulating notes of federal reserve banks and national banks) are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes and dues.”

The section sounds like the government is requiring all sellers to accept U.S. coins and/or currency as payment for goods and services. No, says the website. It explains that the law means only that if you owe a debt and offer to pay it in U.S. currency or coins, you are making a valid offer. But the merchant does not have to accept your offer and may require some other form of payment.

“Private businesses are free to develop their own policies on whether or not to accept cash, unless there is a state law which says otherwise,” the Treasury website says.

A few states or municipalities have adopted laws requiring sellers to accept cash payments. Maryland does not have the legal requirement.

COVID-19 has prompted many merchants to require customers to pay in forms other than cash or to submit exact payment and receive no change. However, some observers have expressed concerns that when merchants refuse cash payments, the refusal creates a disadvantage for communities where access to banking facilities is limited.

The World Health Organization does not specifically target money as a source of possible COVID-19 infections on its website, www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/question-and-answers-hub/q-a-detail/q-a-how-is-covid-19-transmitted.

The WHO said the coronavirus spreads between people, mainly when an infected person is in close contact with another person. The virus can spread from an infected person’s mouth or nose in small liquid particles when the person coughs, sneezes, speaks, sings or breathes heavily. These liquid particles are different sizes, ranging from larger “respiratory droplets” to smaller “aerosols.” Other people can catch COVID-19 when the virus gets into their mouth, nose or eyes, which is more likely to happen when people are in direct or close contact with an infected person, according to WHO.

The Internet offers little definitive information on whether the coronavirus can be transmitted on cash. But one website, www.mintageworld.com/blog/coins-and-notes-a-source-of-covid-19-contamination/, reported that the virus can persist for three hours in the air, 24 hours on cardboard, and even longer on other hard surfaces.

Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Her Legal Matters column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times. Email her at denglelaw@gmail.com.

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