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Our Cash-Free Future Is Getting Closer

Liz Alderman

PARIS — On a typical Sunday, patrons at Julien Cornu’s cheese shop used to load up on Camembert and chèvre for the week, with about half the customers digging into their pockets for euro notes and coins.

But in the era of the coronavirus, cash is no longer à la mode at La Fromagerie, as social distancing requirements and concerns over hygiene prompt nearly everyone who walks through his door to pay with plastic.

“People are using cards and contactless payments because they don’t want to have to touch anything,” said Mr. Cornu, as a line of mask-wearing shoppers stood three feet apart before approaching the register and swiping contactless cards over a reader.

While cash is still accepted, even older shoppers — his toughest clientele when it comes to adopting digital habits — are voluntarily making the switch.

Cash was already being edged out in many countries as urban consumers paid increasingly with apps and cards for even the smallest purchases. But the coronavirus is accelerating a shift toward a cashless future, raising new calculations for merchants and enriching the digital payments industry.

Fears over transmission of the disease have compelled consumers to rethink how they shop and pay. Retailers and restaurants are favoring clicks over cash to reduce exposure for employees. China’s central bank sterilized bank notes in regions affected by the virus. And governments from India to Kenya to Sweden, as well as the United Nations, are promoting cashless payments in the name of public health.

“Time to swap your coins for payment cards — safer for containing coronavirus,” Valdis Dombrovskis, the European Commission vice-president for financial services, wrote on Twitter as Europe imposed quarantines.

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Credit…Elliott Verdier for The New York Times

Cash is certainly not dead. Before the pandemic, bills and coins were used for 80 percent of the transactions in Europe, and there are few signs that the pandemic is about to wipe it out.

Yet for a growing number of people sensitized by Covid-19 quarantines, cash is a fading routine.

“We’re living through an amazing global social experiment that is forcing governments, businesses and consumers to rethink their operating models and norms for social interactions,” said Morten Jorgensen, director of RBR, based in London, a consulting firm specializing in banking technology, cards and payments.

“We have a world in which there is less contact,” he said. “People’s habits are changing as we speak.”

Those dynamics are creating a golden moment for credit card companies, banks and digital platforms, which are capitalizing on the crisis to advance the cashless revolution by encouraging consumers and retailers to use cards and smartphone apps that yield lucrative fees. In Britain alone, retailers paid 1.3 billion pounds (about $1.7 billion) in third-party fees in 2018, up £70 million from the year before, according to the British Retail Consortium.

Payment and processing companies such as PayPal (whose stock is up about 55 percent this year) and Adyen, based in the Netherlands (up 72 percent), also stand to gain. So do data analytics and fraud prevention companies, and businesses that enable merchants to accept card payments.

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Credit…Elliott Verdier for The New York Times

Propelling the trend is a surge in online shopping as homebound consumers turn to digital tools for basic items. In the United States, 40 million customers went online for groceries in April. In Italy, where cash is king, the volume of e-commerce transactions has surged more than 80 percent, according to McKinsey & Company.

Credit card issuers are keeping the momentum rolling by working with banks and governments to lift ceilings on so-called contactless payments that allow shoppers to avoid touching a keypad.

Limits as low as 20 euros, originally intended to prevent thieves from being able to buy large amounts with a stolen or hacked card, were raised to 50 euros or more in France and other countries during quarantine, enticing shoppers to increase the number and value of their purchases.

At Mr. Cornu’s shop, people started buying an average of 35 euros worth of cheese after the contactless limit was raised, compared with around 10 before. Seniors who clung to cash for fear of having a card stolen or hacked started using tap-and-pay to buy just one or two items.

“The fact that the banks and card companies implemented this during confinement, and played on the idea that you don’t even have to touch the machine — people accepted it,” he said.

Visa reported a surge in contactless payments for basic items in Britain after limits there were lifted and a 100 percent increase from a year ago in the United States. Visa said it had also worked with governments in Greece, Ireland, Malta, Poland and Turkey to raise contactless payment limits in those countries.

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Credit…Elliott Verdier for The New York Times

Card companies don’t divulge fee earnings, but Mr. Jorgensen at RBR said issuers were probably raking in a handsome profit. The European Commission capped interchange fees in Europe last year at 0.2 percent of a transaction for debit cards and 0.3 percent for credit after a legal battle with Visa and Mastercard. But the rising volume of swipes helps compensate for the shortfall, he said.

At L’Entrepôt Saint-Claude, a cafe near the cheese shop, the owner, Emmanuel Mades, expected higher contactless payment limits to increase the amount of the fees he pays for card use. Since the restaurant reopened in early June, 90 percent of all tabs are paid by card, a jump from three-quarters before France went into quarantine in mid-March.

Back then, Mr. Mades was paying about 300 euros a month in card fees. With more people switching to contactless cards for even small bills, his expenses are likely “to rise significantly,” he said.

There is no medical evidence that cash transmits the virus. Nonetheless, “perceptions that cash could spread pathogens may change payment behavior by users and firms,” the Bank for International Settlements said in a recent study on the effect of Covid-19 on cash use.

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Credit…Elliott Verdier for The New York Times

Among those hoping to profit from the discomfort is Tappit, a British company that provides data gathering and cashless solutions such as wristbands and apps connected to a credit card for use at festivals, sporting matches and other events with large crowds.

  • Updated June 30, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • What’s the best material for a mask?

      Scientists around the country have tried to identify everyday materials that do a good job of filtering microscopic particles. In recent tests, HEPA furnace filters scored high, as did vacuum cleaner bags, fabric similar to flannel pajamas and those of 600-count pillowcases. Other materials tested included layered coffee filters and scarves and bandannas. These scored lower, but still captured a small percentage of particles.

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

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      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


Tappit, which honed its sales pitch during the pandemic to promote “No more dirty cash,” has experienced a surge in interest by sporting arenas, hotels and restaurants seeking to revive business quickly after lockdowns, said Jason Thomas, the chief executive.

“Some partners who were slightly fearful of going cashless have now decided this is an opportunity to do so,” Mr. Thomas said, noting that cashless technology allows lines to move faster and encourages more spending.

“The pandemic has kind of ripped the Band-Aid off of going cashless,” he said.

Tappit signed £20 million worth of new deals in the last two months, more than in any other period. “These are long-term contracts of between five to 10 years,” Mr. Thomas said. “That tells me that these organizations are never going back to cash.”

The authorities that manage the world’s currencies say the dangers of going fully cashless are rife. In tech-forward Sweden, cash has been disappearing so fast that Parliament and the central bank asked commercial banks to keep bills and coins circulating while they figure out what a cash-free future would mean.

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Credit…Elliott Verdier for The New York Times

Consumer groups warn that vulnerable people risk being marginalized. Many low-income earners and retirees, as well as some immigrants and people with disabilities, have little or no access to electronic payments and are increasingly shut out as banks cut back on A.T.M.s and customer service.

Central banks are looking at whether electronic currencies can replace physical cash. The Swedish Riksbank is testing a pilot version of a digital krona, or e-krona, that could keep the functions of a currency backed by the state.

“In certain economies, there is still a role for cash, because it continues to provide a benefit and a utility,” said John Velissarios of Accenture, which is helping to manage the Riksbank’s test. “That’s where the concept of things like digital central bank money is interesting,” he said.

While virtual euros and dollars are still a ways off, the shift in attitudes toward real cash brought on by the pandemic is unlikely to be reversed.

“Cash is not going to disappear,” said Mr. Jorgensen.

“But it will continue to decline, and Covid is accelerating that trend.”

Théophile Larcher contributed reporting from Paris.

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