Should Minnesota ban reusable shopping bags that could transmit the Coronavirus?

The Coronavirus pandemic has exposed a flaw in the trendy plastic bag bans now in place in environmentally self-conscious states and cities. Concerns over the public health threat posed by fabric shopping bags that could transmit COVID-19 has led New Hampshire to become the first state to issue an emergency order banning the use of reusable bags temporarily in favor of disposable plastic and paper bags.

The backlash over the bags did not escape the notice of Grist, an environmentalist online publication.

“Our grocery store workers are on the front lines of COVID-19, working around the clock to keep New Hampshire families fed,” said [New Hampshire Governor Chris] Sununu, a Republican, in a statement announcing the executive order. “With identified community transmission, it is important that shoppers keep their reusable bags at home given the potential risk to baggers, grocers and customers.”

New Hampshire isn’t the only state to revisit its plastic bag policies due to COVID-19: Maine has postponed a plastic bag ban that was set to go into effect on Earth Day. But New Hampshire is the first state to take the additional step of banning reusable bags.

The Minnesota Legislature passed a far-sighted law in 2017 prohibiting plastic bag bans, though Minneapolis and St. Paul have since enacted ordinances imposing a 5 cent penalty on disposable plastic bags. This week Duluth suspended implementation of a 5 cent penalty set to take effect due to  COVID-19 concerns.

The Minnesota Grocers Association has issued a statement urging shoppers to thoroughly cleanse reusable bags.

“According to the CDC, current evidence suggests that novel coronavirus may remain viable for hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials. The very popular reusable bag could be a carrier. Reusable bags are machine washable. Cleaning followed by disinfecting is a best practice measure for the prevention of spreading COVID-19 and other viral respiratory illnesses.”

Hy-Vee grocery stores have prohibited the use of reusable bags for now.

Effective Friday, March 20, customers will no longer be allowed to bring in reusable bags until further notice since it is difficult to monitor their cleanliness. Because it is not always easy to know the sanitization procedures customers are taking at their homes to keep the bags clean, this is one more way the grocer is helping prevent the spread of the virus.

Yet there’s no indication Minnesota public health authorities are considering banning reusable shopping bags, even as other jurisdictions take action in an abundance of caution. Which begs the question, why take the chance? Even the editors of Grist see the wisdom in foregoing reusable bags given the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic.

So will the reusable bag ban make grocery store shoppers and workers safer? The science on that is somewhat shaky. It’s highly unlikely for the virus to spread from one person to another via a reusable cloth bag or another fabric, Vineet Menachery, an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Texas Medical Branch, told Grist earlier this month. While the novel coronavirus, like previous coronaviruses, has been shown to survive for up to three days on plastic and stainless steel surfaces if left undisturbed, it’s easily destroyed with soap and water, or rubbing alcohol. So washing a cloth bag with detergent would stop the virus in its tracks.

That said, grocery store workers obviously don’t know whether a person bringing a reusable bag into a store has cleaned it recently or not. Sununu is right that grocery store workers are on the frontlines of this public health crisis, and we should all probably be doing what we can to make their lives easier and less stressful these days. And the climate impact of plastic vs. paper vs. cloth bags is actually more complicated than you might think — although reusing a bag you already own is always a more climate-friendly option than creating demand for a new bag.