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Pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters: the latest coronavirus shortage

Signs in stores warn of a national scarcity of coins. Blame coins not circulating in shut-downs and precautions to protect U.S. Mint workers.

Now that the coveted hand sanitizer and elusive toilet paper have reappeared on store shelves, what’s the next coronavirus-related dearth?

You probably didn’t see this one coming: Coins, as in quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies.

Signs have gone up at businesses around Tampa Bay recently, warning shoppers of a scarcity of pocket change across the country.

“Due to the national coin shortage, exact change, whenever possible, is appreciated!” read a sign posted on the door of a South Tampa Dollar Tree.

As with a lot of unexpected changes lately, blame the coronavirus.

Last month, the Federal Reserve announced that “the Covid-19 pandemic has significantly disrupted the supply chain and normal circulation patterns for U.S. coin.”

The flow of coins through the economy “kind of stopped,” Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said.

“The U.S. Mint’s production of coin also decreased due to measures put in place to protect its employees,” the Federal Reserve said.

And even the business of coin-cashing machines and banks where people took rolled coins for paper cash slowed during the shutdowns.

All of which means less change in cash registers.

The Federal Reserve has rationed coin supplies to banks across the country. Some stores are urging people to use exact change, credit cards or other non-cash payments. That dovetails with efforts by some businesses toward contact-free transactions with customers to thwart the spread of the virus.

According to the National Association of Convenience Stores, American consumers pay cash in more than a third of all in-person transactions. Nearly half the time, we use cash for transactions under $10. Lower-income consumers — those who make less than $25,000 a year — use cash 43 percent of the time, the association says.

NACS spokesman Jeff Lenard said some areas have reported that the coin shortage has been “a real challenge,” while others aren’t seeing much effect.

At local Goodwill stores, the head of finance was aware of the shortage early on and made sure they had coins on hand, said Chris Ward, director of marketing for Goodwill Industries-Suncoast. (Like many non-profits, Goodwill asks customers if they want to round up their purchase amount to the next dollar instead of taking their change to support Goodwill’s services.)

“I’m not worried about that,” said Karine Fort, owner of Samaria Cafe in downtown Tampa. People pay more and more with credit cards, she said, and “we have less and less cash.”

Businesses such as St. Petersburg’s Black Crow Coffee have gone cashless, with options like Google and Apple Pay, to minimize contact. Even businesses you might associate with coins — like the St. Pete Laundry Company — use cards and cash, but not coins.

The Federal Reserve expressed confidence that “the coin inventory issues will resolve” once the economy opens more widely and the coin supply chain returns to its normal circulation patterns.

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