Plastic, please.

That’s the new stance at request from Dick’s Drive-In, which is asking customers to use debit or credit cards when paying for burgers, shakes and other fare, in order to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The policy, which the Seattle-based burger chain introduced Thursday, is voluntary: It’s still accepting cash at all seven of its locations. But according to signs posted at its restaurants and a statement on the company’s social media sites, Dick’s wants customers to pay with plastic “if possible” and is letting them know cash orders will take longer because “our employees have extra sanitization procedures for all orders that involve cash.”

There is no consensus among health authorities on whether cash can spread the coronavirus, which has caused outbreaks of the COVID-19 illness across the globe.

Officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were unable to confirm whether the agency had specific guidance on handling cash. A spokesperson for Public Health — Seattle & King County said the agency also had no specific policy but added that it was “looking into the question.”

Although banknotes are often dirty and are known to harbor potential pathogens, “we just don’t have a lot of good evidence to suggest that paper money or coins are a source for this particular infection or any infection,” said Marilyn Roberts, a microbiologist with the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington. “We don’t know that money has ever been the ‘point zero’ of an infection.”

But other health officials seem to be steering consumers away from cash transactions. “We know that money changes hands frequently and can pick up all sorts of bacteria and viruses and things like that,” a World Health Organization official told The (London) Telegraph last week. “We would advise people to wash their hands after handling banknotes and avoid touching their face.”

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The Chinese government has also focused on cash as a possible vector for the coronavirus. Banks in China have been ordered to disinfect cash using ultraviolet or heat treatments before returning it to circulation, according to CNBC.

In France, the Louvre last week banned cash for ticket sales after museum workers walked off the job over coronavirus fears.

Public health officials warn that cash alternatives aren’t automatically safe. Using a credit or debit card also involves touching surfaces that could possibly be contaminated.

Because the primary way the coronavirus spreads is person to person, said Roberts, the UW microbiologist, the larger risk for consumers, especially older ones, is being in crowded places.

“I don’t think how you pay is the major issue,” she added.

Jasmine Donovan, Dick’s president, said the company adopted its new payment policy after identifying “cash handling as the one place where we needed to do more” to “protect our crew and customers” from the coronavirus.

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Under the policy, employees who take a cash order must use a hand sanitizer or wash their hands with soap and water before serving the next customer. When customers pay with a credit or debit card, the card is inserted by the customer into a card reader and is never touched by employees. Dick’s also takes Apple Pay, which also requires no physical contact between worker and customer, Donovan said.

The policy took several days to implement, in part because the company needed to source adequate supplies of hand sanitizer, Donovan said. If locations run out of sanitizer, Donovan said, backup plans include confining all cash transactions to a single window nearest the sink or temporarily suspending cash transactions.

It’s unknown if other Seattle companies have adopted or are planning similar policies. However, several businesses have already taken less visible health precautions around cash.

Starbucks has instructed employees to wash their hands “after each [cash] transaction,” said an employee at a downtown store. A spokesperson for the Seattle-based coffee company was unable to confirm its policy for handling cash.

Employees at two grocery chains — Safeway and QFC — said they had received no directives about cash transactions beyond extra hand washing or wearing gloves. But a bookkeeper at a Seattle-area Safeway said many store employees already treated coins and paper currency as a health risk, given how routinely cash is passed from person to person.

“Money is disgusting,” the bookkeeper said. “I’m always wearing gloves, for sure.”

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Whether consumers are ready for a no-cash policy is unclear. Marissa Baker, an expert in occupational health at the University of Washington, said one concern around a ban on cash would center on consumers who lacked access to a credit card or a bank account.

According to a 2018 report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, cash was “the most frequently used payment instrument, representing 30 percent of all transactions and 55 percent of transactions under $10.”

Dick’s payment policy hasn’t elicited much pushback from customers, “other than some eye-rolling on social media,” Donovan said.

How the policy affects sales is yet to be determined. Dick’s was cash-only until 2016 and currently sees cash in 40% of its transactions, Donovan said.

On Monday, customers lined up at the Dick’s location on Capitol Hill seemed unaware of the payment policy until a reporter pointed to it, posted on a small sign on the front window.

Several said they preferred not to use credit cards — one man joked that paying in cash was how he kept his wife from knowing he’d eaten at Dick’s, while two other people said they preferred to pay in cash because it was simpler.

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But most customers seemed to appreciate the reasoning behind Dick’s new payment policy.

“It’s just easier and cleaner,” said Calvin Dunbar, a 32-year-old Seattle resident. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, Dunbar said, he’d been gradually moving away from cash in all his transactions.

The outbreak, he added, was “just the nail in the coffin.”

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