In addition to worldwide health and economic tribulations, the COVID-19 pandemic has also caused a dearth of coins in the United States that has left many quite literally short-changed. Laundromats, fast food restaurants, currency exchanges and grocery stores have all felt the strain of the coinage unavailability throughout the West Side of Chicago and its western suburbs.
“There is an adequate amount of coins in the economy, but the slowed pace of circulation has meant that sufficient quantities of coins are sometimes not readily available where needed,” reads a July 23 press release from the U.S. Mint.
Precautions to slow COVID-19’s spread have decreased retail sales activity and substantially reduced deposits from third-party coin processors, which account for the majority of coins put into circulation, according to the U.S. Mint.
In the meantime, businesses are continuing to operate as normally as possible with the limited supply of change in their cash registers, hanging signs in the windows directing customers to pay in exact change or to use alternative payment methods.
“We can’t do cash back,” said Regina Bartlett, manager of Save A Lot grocery store, 5555 W. North Ave. in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago.
That Save A Lot location has been unable to order coins through its bank because the bank does not have any to give, according to Bartlett.
Customers have been “understanding” of the situation, Bartlett said, and use debit cards or credit cards to pay for their groceries.
“We’re making do with what we have,” she said. “There’s nothing we can really do about it.”
Bartlett’s Save A Lot has been unable to order coins through its bank because the bank does not have any to give.
Carnival Grocery, 824 S Oak Park Ave., in Oak Park has had better luck lately getting coins, after switching its banking to the neighboring Fifth Third branch.
“Fifth Third Bank is right next door to us, and they’ve given us a generous allotment of coin compared to what we were getting from other banks,” said Carnival Grocery owner Arthur Paris.
According to Paris, Carnival Grocery was banking with Byline Bank until their closest branch closed due to the pandemic. Carnival’s Chicago location banks with PNC.
“They won’t give us anywhere near as much coin as Fifth Third will,” said Paris, who noted it’s been difficult keeping coins, especially quarters.
“We’ve at times encouraged customers to use credit cards because we’re afraid that we’re going to run out,” he said.
Since the pandemic started, the number of customers who pay in cash has dropped about 20 percent, Paris said. He began noticing customers were asking for coins more frequently about six weeks ago.
“Over the last two weeks, it’s gotten really acute,” he added.
The 7-Eleven location at 7749 Roosevelt Road in Forest Park has a sign posted on the front door that reads: “Dear Customers, due to a shortage at the federal reserve, we are very short on coins. Please consider paying in exact change or using a debit/credit card. We apologize for any inconvenience.”
Some businesses have not yet felt the strain of the shortage, including The Laundry Room, 206 Desplaines Ave. in Forest Park.
Jill Bush, co-owner, said she’s heard about the coin shortage, but their business hasn’t been affected yet.
“Forest Park Bank has kept us supplied, but we’re following the situation and keeping our fingers crossed,” said Bush, adding that most customers bring their own change for the washers and dryers.
Cathy Pruger from Forest Park Bank said on July 30 that the bank is aware of a coin shortage as part of economic changes due to COVID-19.
“We can still acquire roll coin,” Pruger said, “and we have no plans to increase any fees to customers or limit commercial transactions.”
According to Pruger, Forest Park Bank is monitoring the coin situation closely but, should fees for the bank increase, they may have to make further adjustments.
Forest Park Bank has seen an increase in customers bringing in loose coins and trading them for currency, possibly as a result of hearing about the coin shortage and wanting to help put change back into circulation.
Sawmilly Sandwich Shoppe, 35 E. Burlington St. in Riverside, has not faced any problems due to the coin shortage.
“I’ve heard some of the rumblings about it, but our bank has not notified us or said there was anything we needed to handle differently,” said owner Scott Zimmer.
Sawmilly still accepts cash payments for orders, but Zimmer said most customers prefer to use credit or debit cards.
“I think a lot of people are quite honestly more comfortable using a credit card and a lot of people prefer to give credit cards over the phone rather than hand them over,” Zimmer said.
Brookfield Currency Exchange, 9450 Ogden Ave., in Brookfield has started rationing its coinage, according to the manager, Louis, who declined to give his last name.
“We’re rationing people to two rolls of whatever coins we have because we don’t have any extra,” he said. “We’re limited as to what we can have.”
The currency exchange has experienced an uptick in customers looking for change.
“After you turn them down once or twice, they don’t really come back anymore,” he said.
While it has enough coins to operate and give change to people who cash checks, the currency exchange can no longer sell coins to customers as it had before the shortage.
“We don’t have a problem because we have enough coin amongst us, but we just can’t sell it to the customers like we do sometimes.”
Fresh Thyme Farmers Market, 7501 W. North Ave., in River Forest has signs posted outside directing customers to pay with checks and credit or debit cards due to the coin shortage, but manager Martin Reynosa said the grocery store has yet to run out of change and has a good supply.
Askale Phillips, co-owner of Maywood’s Kingston Market Caribbean & African Groceries at 1401 S. 5th Ave., said she had to go to her local currency exchange to source coin for the family-run grocery store.
“I was able to get quarters, but I observed the cashier at the currency exchange telling the customer before me that she’s only allowed to sell one roll of quarters,” said Phillips.
Kingston Market has run out of quarters several times since the shortage started.
Phillips thinks people feel safer not using physical currency during COVID-19 because cash and coins have come into contact with innumerable hands over time.
While Phillips said the shortage has affected the store “greatly,” it is not entirely cash-dependent and accepts Apple Pay, as well as credit and debit cards.
To restore coin circulation, the U.S. Mint asks citizens to spend their share of coins, deposit them in banks or exchange them for cash. Don’t feel ashamed to pay for a pizza in all quarters, dig behind your couch cushions for spare nickels or break into your piggybank — the U.S. Mint is counting on you.