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America is short on change; how COVID-19 caused a lack of coins in the U.S.

2 years 3 months 4 days ago Monday, June 22 2020 Jun 22, 2020 June 22, 2020 9:16 AM June 22, 2020 in News
Source: NPR

Toilet paper may have made its return to most grocery store shelves across the U.S., but novel coronavirus has now hampered the country's supply of pocket change. 

According to NPR, banks across the U.S. are running low on nickels, dimes, quarters, and even pennies, causing the federal entity that supplies banks with cash, the Federal Reserve, to ration scarce supplies.

The lack of change is due, in part, to the U.S. Mint producing fewer coins than usual this spring in hopes of protecting employees from becoming infected with COVID-19. 

Another factor contributing to the shortage was a slump in the distribution of coins/change during the pandemic. 

With many of the automatic coin-sorting machines that people typically use to cash in loose change off-limits and most businesses closed, unused coins piled up in homes of residents on lockdown and in cash drawers of closed businesses.

So, banks remained in need of change, which the public had plenty of, but was unable to distribute while under coronavirus restrictions that prevented day-to-day business transactions. 

In retrospect, the cause and effect factor of the entire situation may appear glaringly obvious, but the unprecedented nature of novel coronavirus led to an oversight on the part of many.

Now, as the country reopens from stay-at-home orders, citizens and bank managers alike are surprised by the seemingly sudden lack of change in the U.S. 

One such bank manager who wasn't expecting the shortage and resulting rationing of change, is Gay Dempsey of the Bank of Lincoln County in Tennessee.

Dempsey said, "It was just a surprise. Nobody was expecting it."

Her bank typically dispenses 400 to 500 rolls of pennies weekly. But since the rationing order, she only has 100 rolls to dispense. Similar cutbacks apply to nickels, dimes, and quarters.

This is a problem for Dempsey's business customers, who need the coins to stock cash registers in Lincoln County, Tenn.

"You think about all your grocery stores and convenience stores and a lot of people that still operate with cash," Dempsey said. "They have to have that just to make change."

Rep. John Rose, R-Tenn., sounded the alarm last week during a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee.

"My fear is that customers who use these banks will react very poorly," Rose said. "And I know that we all don't want to wake up to headlines in the near future such as 'Banks Out of Money.' "

The congressman warned that if businesses are unable to make exact change, they'll be forced to round up or round down, "in a time when pennies are the difference between profitability and loss."

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell assured Rose that the central bank is monitoring the situation closely.

"We're working with the mint to increase supply, and we're working with the reserve banks to get that supply where it needs to be," Powell said. "So we think it's a temporary situation."

Powell stressed that America's current lack of change should clear up quickly.With most stay-at-home orders lifted and businesses reopening, the distribution of much-needed coins will commence as citizens make use of near-forgotten change stored in jacket pockets, cars, and couch cushions. 

In the meantime, Dempsey, the banker, has secured an emergency stash of coins from some of her business customers who run vending machines and laundromats.

While a growing number of people rely on credit cards or smartphone apps for many transactions today, the coin crunch is a reminder that sometimes you just need change.

"Cash is still king, I guess," Dempsey mused.

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