As states rush to lift, waive, or delay regulations that might impede their ability to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, plastic bag bans are being tossed aside.
On Tuesday, Maine's legislature voted to put off enforcement of their state's plastic bag prohibition—which was set to go into effect April 22—until next year. The day before, New York's Department of Environmental Conservation agreed to delay any enforcement of that state's bag ban until May 15.
The New York ban was supposed to go into effect on March 1. But because a lawsuit challenging the bag ban has been delayed over coronavirus, the state was forced to pull back until that case can resume.
The reusable bags these bans are supposed to encourage—and which were considered an unmitigated social good just a few weeks ago—have come under fresh scrutiny from a newly germophobic nation that fears they might aid the spread of COVID-19.
Businesses have been leading the way on this front. Starbucks suspended its policy of filling up customers' reusable mugs in early March, and Dunkin Donuts and Tim Hortons (a Canadian coffee chain) have done the same.
"Until this pandemic passes, state and local officials should discourage shoppers from bringing their potentially virus-laden reusable bags out in public. Restore single-use bags, including the plastic kind," wrote the Wall Street Journal's editorial board on Monday.
The mayor of a town in Maine has actually called for a ban on reusable bags.
How likely is it that reusable bags will give you Covid-19? That's still something of an open question. John Tierney, writing in City Journal, notes that numerous studies have shown reusable bags' potential to transmit bacteria and viruses. And recent research has shown that the virus can live on plastic surfaces for up to three days. So single-use bags might be better for avoiding the spread of the disease, as they will be tossed immediately and not left lying around the house where multiple people migh come into repeat contact with it.
That said, the Centers for Disease Control downplay the risk of surface transmission on their website, saying that while it is possible to catch COVID-19 from touching objects and then touching your face, "this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads."
Two epidemiologists interviewed by Slate about grocery store best practices also said reusable bags did not pose much of added risk. "I doubt it's going to be a problem," said Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Medical Center. "If you're really worried, you can always wipe down the bag with mild detergent or a disinfecting wipe, but that shouldn't be necessary unless the bag gets some unexpected exposure to contaminated material."
Plastic bag bans are not good policy. They have a negligible impact on plastic pollution, they may make climate change worse (heavier reusable and paper bags take more resources to manufacture and transport), and they restrict consumer choice. On those grounds alone, they should be repealed.
Consumers should certainly have the option of choosing plastic bags if they believe them to be safer, too. But they probably won't save us from coronavirus.