Money laundering takes on unexpected meaning

The shift away from cash was already well underway before the pandemic caused Americans to become hypervigilant about the spread of pathogens. Consumers used cash in 26 percent of transactions in 2018, down 4 percent from the prior year, and part of a downward trend, according to the Federal Reserve.

And while the World Health Organization said there is no evidence to indicate that cash is transmitting the novel coronavirus, some governments began to quarantine bank notes as the virus spread around the globe.

South Korea’s central bank said March 6 it would quarantine bank notes for two weeks to remove any traces of coronavirus. It also said it would burn cash to curb the outbreak.

The Bank of Korea said it would put currency notes through a high-temperature laundering before releasing them for circulation.

Banks across China have been ordered to disinfect all new dollars distributed in the country, and to withdraw potentially infected bills from circulation.

In the United States, the Federal Reserve has been quarantining dollars repatriated from Asia before recirculating them, according to a Reuters report. District banks that help manage the money supply have set aside shipments of dollars from Asia for seven to 10 days before processing and redistributing them to financial institutions. The Fed sought advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before taking its measures regarding cash. 

Meanwhile, industry groups and banks have been urging the Fed and U.S. Treasury Department to issue a statement assuring people that using cash poses minimal risk. And for retailers who are still accepting cash, the advice remains the same: Wash hands frequently.