Atlanta council members debate a ban on cashless retail

Atlanta City Council members on Wednesday debated a proposal that would mandate retail businesses accept cash payments.

Many businesses, especially after the pandemic, have transitioned to a cashless system for customers. Others cite the fear of robberies as a reason to only take credit cards or other digital forms of payments.

In 2019, Mercedes-Benz Stadium became one of the first two major U.S. stadiums to convert to being cashless.

Council member Antonio Lewis introduced the legislation in an effort to address the financial barrier for low-income, young or senior residents who may not have a credit or debit card to purchase from retail stores who don’t accept cash.

The proposal includes a $500 fine for every instance where cash isn’t accepted.

Lewis said that residents without credit cards can’t enjoy businesses in certain areas of the city.

“We’re excluding our kids and we’re excluding our seniors,” he said.

But attorneys for the city argued that the state constitution prevents municipalities from passing legislation that puts regulations on retail businesses.

“The state of Georgia could take this action,” said Amber Robinson, an attorney with the Department of Law. “The federal government does not prohibit states from doing so. However, in the state of Georgia, the state reserves this power to itself.”

The legislation was ultimately held after debate in the Finance and Executive Committee, but council members said they recognized a need to address the issue.

Council member Jason Winston said while he supports the intent to remove financial barriers for residents, there is a security concern for businesses that carry cash.

In 2009, bartender John Henderson was killed during a Grant Park tavern robbery and, more recently, employee Chelsea Beller was shot at Barcelona Wine Bar during a robbery in 2017.

“I’ve had restaurants and businesses in my district who are apprehensive of being forced to carry cash again,” he said.

Atlanta City Council frequently struggles with what legislation they can and can’t pass under state law. Council member Matt Westmoreland said he learned “the hard way” about state preemptions when he attempted to ban smoking both indoors and outdoors in the city.

“But there are things we can do,” he said. “Including pushing financial resources toward nonprofits that will go with you and me down to South Atlanta and open up bank accounts and provide debit cards to students.”