The leader in banning single-use plastic bags is the latest locale to change its stance in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

By Mike Pomranz
April 02, 2020
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The San Francisco Bay Area has long been at the forefront of environmental causes—including being one of the first cities in the country to ban single-use plastic bags in 2007. But as COVID-19 has forced Americans to re-evaluate our actions, San Francisco has joined a number of areas in deciding that—in this instance—a temporary return to single-use bags is a sensible precaution to take to curb the spread of coronavirus.

On Tuesday, the San Francisco Department of Public Health ordered new social distancing protocols for essential businesses within the city and county. Included as a measure “to prevent unnecessary contact” is “not permitting customers to bring their own bags, mugs, or other reusable items from home”—a new rule set to last until at least May 3.

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The Bay Area is far from the only place that’s rethinking bag policies. Entire states like Massachusetts have temporarily lifted bans. And some individual chains like Hy-Vee have told customers not to bring reusable bags into their stores, according to MPR News. However, questions also exist as to how big of a risk reusable bags actually pose for spreading the virus. Last Friday, The Guardian even went so far as to publish a piece titled, “Rightwing thinktanks use fear of Covid-19 to fight bans on plastic bags.”

Through that lens, San Francisco’s temporary policy switch may seem like a bigger deal. But at the same time, the city’s choice may have more to do with appeasing rightfully worried frontline grocery workers than implementing a practical measure to stop the spread of disease. “This fear of bringing reusable bags into the stores is misguided, but I certainly understand why store employees don't want to handle somebody else's things,” Mark Murray, executive director of the non-profit Californians Against Waste, told Politico. “I wouldn't have any expectation that somebody is going to put my groceries into my bag that I brought from home.”

And Jim Araby—director of strategic campaigns for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5, which represents positions like supermarket stockers and retail clerks—told the site he believed San Francisco was simply being cautious. “If you look at how the Bay Area has led on all of this, they led on shelter-in-place first,” he told the site. “They're being responsive to what's out there. From our perspective, it's important to be responsive and be proactive.”

Along those lines, at a time when so much is still uncertain, “better safe than sorry” is probably a prudent position to take. We’ll have plenty of time to debate plastic bag bans again once this pandemic is over and we can get in each other’s faces for a good non-socially-distanced argument.