Money Matters in the Midlands During COVID-19

By Susan Doktor

According to the Department of Employment and Workforce, the April unemployment rate in South Carolina was 12.1%. While that’s significantly below the national rate of 14.7%, Midlands residents are still feeling the economic pain of the coronavirus pandemic. Businesses in every sector have been ravaged, but small businesses have been particularly hard hit. That includes the 150 or so vendors who ply their wares weekly at the Soda City Market, which has been closed indefinitely to curb the spread of COVID-19. While local officials predict the market will open again in June, we can expect it to be a different place, with participants wearing masks, vendors and customers separated by plastic barriers, new hand sanitization stations, and, we hope, a great deal of voluntary social distancing going on.

Cash Viewed as a Culprit
The Market may have been closed due to the increased risk of infection in crowded places. But proximity to other people isn’t the only risk factor for market vendors and customers. Many of the goods sold at the market are what we’d considered small purchases—a few dollars for a smoothie or bowl of she-crab soup—and that means a lot of cash transactions. With new studies revealing that the coronavirus can survive on paper for up to five days and on metal objects for even longer, handling cash could be hazardous to our health.

In China, where the virus has had the deadliest impact, the government has ordered banks to sterilize cash before it is circulated. But here in the US, no such mandates have been issued, even as the nation begins to reopen for business. While physical US bank branches have been largely closed, funds withdrawn through ATMs and drive-through tellers, are often in the form of cash. Some people, facing the daily uncertainty of an economy in free-fall, are even cash-hoarding. It’s a common response in times of crisis. Somehow having cash on hand gives people a sense of control and safety—something they may feel the virus has stolen from them.

To understand the scale of the risk, we can look at one example. The nation was collectively grateful to receive the $1200 stimulus checks issued by the federal government to provide some relief during the global pandemic. While many people received their checks via direct deposit, some 20 million paper checks were delivered by mail. The elderly, who may be more likely to favor cash, and economically-disadvantaged citizens who don’t have access to full-service banking and rely on check-cashing stores instead, may be at greater risk than other socio-economic groups.

Electronic Alternatives
Not surprisingly, many people are acting on their fear (and common sense) and vigorously embracing new electronic technologies as their preferred payment methods. Electronic banking and paying with plastic have been for popular years. But the coronavirus has given those old payment modes a boost and set a new trend in motion. Touchless payment through applications like ApplePay and GooglePay, which rely on two hand-held devices kept at a distance from one another, are a safer way to pay than transactions performed with a plastic card and keypad. Constructed from plastic and steel, keypads are even more likely than cash to transmit the virus. Many people would rather use their smartphones to pay than carry disinfectant wipes in their pockets to use each time they touch the keypad at a convenience store. And because businesses follow the money, the number of businesses accepting payments made through touchless methods is growing. Don’t be surprised if the next time you order Chinese take-out, the delivery person shows up with scanner in hand to take your “money.”

Currents in Currency
These are the trends that ordinary people doing ordinary things can see. But other changes may be afoot, particularly in the global currency market. Worldwide, nearly 50 million people now hold cryptocurrency accounts. They’re trading in their dollars, yen, and rupees for such currencies as Bitcoin. Since 2016, the number of cryptocurrency account holders has increased by about ten-fold. But that number may soon skyrocket, fueled by unchecked fear and genuine health concerns. The cryptocurrency exchange industry is sharply focused on bridging the gap between virtual and traditional currencies and making cryptocurrency payments in everyday locations simple and secure.

Traditionalists Still Have Safe Options
Some people aren’t ready to sign up for touchless apps and virtual currency. Fortunately, the best checking accounts offer electronic bill pay through both PC and mobile banking applications. Most banks’ mobile apps facilitate electronic check deposits through a smartphone’s camera, which saves users a trip to a branch office. Retirees, who may receive retirement benefits by mail and are subject to more serious health consequences if they contract the virus, can take advantage of this option to keep themselves safer. Electronic bill pay has other benefits, as well. Various statements and reports are easy to access with electronic banking and make it simpler to keep track of your budget. Online payments are faster than payments made by paper check in many cases. With the record rise in unemployment, many people have been forced to juggle their finances like never before and last-minute bill paying has become the norm. The speed of electronic payment can mean the difference between an account in good standing and costly late fees piling up and quickly ruining an otherwise good credit score. And electronic payments don’t get lot in the mail.

Relying on electronic bill pay is a good safety strategy for utility, mortgage, and other regular expenditures. But health experts also recommend taking precautions when leaving home to buy groceries and other necessities. Don’t assume the risk of paying with cash, and opt for using a debit card or touchless payment method whenever possible. Wear gloves when touching an electronic keypad. Sanitize your gloves before you get in your car or return to your home. And do what you can to keep shopping excursions to a minimum. Visit those stores that carry as many as possible of the items you need to limit stops. Safe shopping means less shopping, at least for the time being.

Author bio:
Susan Doktor is a journalist and business strategist who hails from New York City. She writes, guest-, and ghost-blogs on a wide range of topics from finance and technology to real estate, fitness, and food and wine. Follow her on Twitter @branddoktor.

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