Clinking sounds are conspicuously absent from tills across the US.
The country’s coin supply has become an unexpected victim of the coronavirus pandemic, which has led businesses to ask for exact change or cashless payments.
“The impact of COVID-19 has resulted in the disruption of the supply channels of circulating coinage — the pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters that the American people and businesses use in their day-to-day transactions,” the US Mint said in a Thursday statement.
Despite the Mint’s efforts to produce more coins to meet growing demand (in June, Mint workers produced 1.65 billion coins — more than a 50% increase from its monthly production average in 2019), the reality is that many Americans have become unintentional coin hoarders.
“Simply put, there is an adequate amount of coins in the economy, but the slowed pace of circulation has meant that sufficient quantities of coins are sometimes not readily available where needed,” the Mint’s statement said, adding, “We ask that the American public start spending their coins, depositing them, or exchanging them for currency at financial institutions or taking them to a coin redemption kiosk.”
The pandemic decreased retail opportunities as well as shoppers’ willingness to touch cash and coins
In-person shopping mostly stopped during COVID-19 lockdowns, and fewer Americans ventured out to do laundry, take public transit, or park at meters: all coin-heavy activities.
“With establishments like retail shops, bank branches, transit authorities, and laundromats closed, the typical places where coin enters our society have slowed or even stopped the normal circulation,” the US Federal Reserve, which controls the Mint, said in a June statement.
Augmenting the problem, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that even essential businesses “encourage customers to use touchless payment options, when available” and “minimize handling cash, credit cards, reward cards, and mobile devices, where possible.”
That’s because cash and coin transactions tend to require direct, close physical contact between shoppers and cashiers — an outcome at odds with social-distancing recommendations from public-health experts.
Lingering reluctance to exchange money means the pennies and dimes that normally bounce from store to store, or from people to banks, are staying home.
Virus particles can live on coins, but they’re unlikely to make you sick
Rachel Graham, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, previously told Business Insider that smooth, nonporous surfaces like doorknobs and tabletops are better at carrying viruses in general. Porous surfaces — like money, hair, and cloth fabric — don’t allow viruses to survive as long because the small spaces or holes in them can trap the virus and prevent its transfer.
“Coins will transmit a virus better than cash, but this shouldn’t be a huge concern,” she said. “Basic rule of thumb should be to consider money dirty anyway, because it is. It goes through too many hands not to be.”
One study suggested the virus could live up to four hours on copper (today’s pennies are made of copper and zinc), while research published in The Lancet showed it took four days for the virus to leave paper money.
That being said, the virus “does not spread easily” from contaminated surfaces, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads, but we are still learning more about this virus,” the agency said. Still, the CDC recommends that people “routinely clean and disinfect” high-touch surfaces just in case.
Áine Cain and Anna Medaris Miller contributed reporting to this story.