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Coronavirus crisis: How to deal with potentially contaminated money

Ethan Wolff-Mann
Senior Writer

As the coronavirus pandemic intensifies in the U.S., more people are using credit cards and avoiding cash as a way to reduce the chance of contamination. Payment cards may help slow transmission of the virus, according to the World Health Organization

First off, experts at the CDC have stressed that the virus infects people when they touch their face or breathe in the virus if someone coughs. This means the virus probably won’t affect you as long as you wash your hands after touching money and avoid your face.

“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,” the CDC said, “but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

That’s not exactly a “no, it’s not a problem,” either, however.

Unfortunately, washing hands might be the only way to deal with virus-contaminated cash. There’s really no easy way to clean paper money.

While washing money with soap — which breaks a virus’s lipid membrane — would work just as it might with our hands, it probably would destroy the money. According to the New York Times, banks shred money that goes through a washing machine and dryer because it ruins the security features, making it unusable.

David Mayer, a personal trainer and yoga instructor in San Francisco, sprays down a Wells Fargo ATM machine before using it in San Francisco on Friday, March 20, 2020. Nearly 40 million people in California awoke Friday to the reality of a near lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus. (AP Photo/Olga R. Rodriguez)

While some people might spritz money with a diluted bleach solution or alcohol, or iron it, these are not recommended ways to deal with dirty money. Really, the only thing to do is to take it to the bank or ATM — which still will accept it, even if some businesses refuse.

So what do the banks do?

The Chinese government has been reportedly sterilizing money received by banks with ultraviolet light and heat to kill the virus as well as waiting 14 days for the virus to die before the money is recirculated

There hasn’t been much of a push for the U.S. or the U.K. to do so, though Reuters reported that the Federal Reserve had quarantined cash coming in from Asia. According to the Fed, regional branches of the Fed system that manage cash are setting aside money coming in for a week or more before returning them to financial institutions. 

This seems to be the preferred way to deal with the coronavirus problem: wait it out.

Tellers in New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., told Yahoo Finance they didn’t have a specific procedure for decontaminating money. One teller who works at Chase (JPM) said consumers can still deposit and withdraw, but staff have been using gloves at all times and have been trying to maintain social distancing to the whatever extent possible. 

A teller at Bank of America told Yahoo Finance that if someone was concerned about contaminated cash, they could put the cash aside for the recommended time until it was safe. If someone really needs to make a deposit, they could use the ATM to avoid human contact. 

The paper bills that go into ATMs, he said, are collected in a separate cassette than the money that is dispensed, meaning potentially-infected cash would not go to people making withdrawals. The teller added that since money sits in the machines for a while, risk should be minimal; the virus should die after a few days, though there are no guarantees given how new the situation is. 

Press contacts for Chase and Bank of America didn’t get back to Yahoo Finance by time of publication.

The National Institutes of Health wrote that the coronavirus is stable on cardboard for 24 hours but up to three days on plastic and stainless steel, which means that coins are likely of greater concern than paper money. 

Coins, however, are much easier to clean. Like any metal surface, wiping down with a disinfectant will solve that problem. (Though you could always refuse the change.)

Other types of contamination

Though the Fed doesn’t really have a public playbook for contamination from the viruses and bacteria, it does have a playbook for other types of contaminants, which is so exhaustive that it’s surprising there’s nothing for things like the coronavirus.

As long as you can still see its value, currency that’s contaminated due to “exposure to water or other liquids that results in the existence of mold,” “blood, urine, feces or any other bodily fluids, including removal from any body cavity, corpse or animal,” sewage, “exposure to any chemical, liquid or foreign substance that may pose a health hazard or safety risk” and “tear gas used in most dye packs” can be deposited, as long as you give advance written noticeTO? a local Federal Reserve cash office.

It’s not an easy process. Once you give notice, the money must be sorted and prepared in a certain way, then double-bagged in bags “large enough to permit movement of the currency inside the bag for initial visual inspection” with the word “CONTAMINATED” in permanent marker on the outside.

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Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance focusing on consumer issues, personal finance, retail, airlines, and more. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann.

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