Plastic bags remain available, as do the paper variety, which would not be subject to the tax. But the 5-cent tax measure is intended to encourage shoppers to bring canvas or other reusable totes to the store — a less wasteful practice, and one grocers say poses a health risk if the bags are not washed between uses.
Illinois, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and a number of California counties have recently banned the use of reusable bags to try to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has been found to stay infectious for up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel.
At a time when the grocery industry has “really risen to the occasion for improving sanitation” — cleaning conveyor belts and carts after each use, erecting plastic barriers between clerks and customers — reusable bags could undermine those efforts, said Parker Slaybaugh, executive director of the Virginia Food Industry Association, a trade group for retail and wholesale food industry.
Stephen Luby, an professor of infectious disease at Stanford University, said he does not think coronavirus transmission by way of reusable grocery bags “is a high risk that we should particularly prioritize.” But he said it is “possible” that someone infected with the virus could shed it on a reusable bag and transmit it to the store clerk who fills it with groceries.
“We certainly don’t have any epidemiological evidence that supports it,” he said. “If you’re bringing a bag from home, maybe you should be bagging yourself.”
Luby said it was mostly a “symbolic gesture” when bags were banned in the San Francisco Bay area where he lives.
“Part of what I thought was going on in California is, the grocery workers perceived this as a threat,” he said. “So one of the advantages of shifting to this policy is, you’re clearly communicating that we, the government and society, are appreciative of what you’re doing, and we’re taking some steps to try to protect you.”
Contamination was one issue the grocery industry raised as it objected to the proposed tax, but it was largely overshadowed by other objections, including the relatively high price of paper bags and the inability of paper-bag makers to keep up with demand.
“It wasn’t the point that resonated the most with anyone at that time,” said Slaybaugh, who pointed to a 2018 Loma Linda University School of Public Health study that indicated viruses could be spread by bags.
The grocers support another bill, sponsored by Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax), to create the Plastic Waste Prevention Advisory Council, which would study how to curb plastic use. Slaybaugh suggested that the council might come up for better ways to recycle plastic bags.
Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who sponsored the Senate version of the 5-cent tax bill, noted that it “does not forbid the use of throwaway paper or plastic bags.”
“If the governor would like to amend the bill [to provide] for the ability to suspend it in an emergency situation, I certainly wouldn’t object,” Ebbin said.
He also noted that the tax would not take effect for about a year in any locality that chooses to impose it. The legislation has an effective date of Jan. 1, 2021, and also provides a three-month delay for the locality to give notice to the state tax commissioner.
Northam has until Saturday to sign, amend or veto the plastic-bag legislation, or another bill that grocers are opposing, related to stolen shopping carts.
“Gov. Northam, like all Virginians, is tremendously grateful for the work of grocery store employees during this time,” spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said. “He will continue to carefully review these pieces of legislation.”
The District has temporarily suspended enforcement of its 5-cent bag tax, which took effect in 2009, in response to the virus. Mike Matthews, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment, said officials are suspending enforcement for the first time in “response to hardships many District residents are facing related to covid-19,” but still urge companies to comply. Maryland does not have a statewide plastic-bag tax.
The food industry association also has asked Northam to veto a bill that would allow localities to recoup the cost of removing shopping carts that are stolen from stores and later dumped on public property. Sponsored by Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), the bill is intended to spare localities the expense of addressing the blight caused by abandoned carts.
Grocers contend the measure would essentially make them pay restitution for being a victim of theft. Slaybaugh said the timing of the bill is especially poor given the lengths that supermarkets have gone to keep shelves stocked and stores clean during the covid-19 crisis.
“To say that grocery stores don’t care about their property being the cause of blight isn’t only unfair,” Slaybaugh said. “I think we have seen that grocery stores care deeply about the communities they serve.”
Surovell called that argument “preposterous.”
“It’s my impression that grocery stores are making record profits right now,” he said. “The idea that this is a financial burden to them is nonsensical. . . . The companies need to take responsibility for their property.”
Staff writers Fenit Nirappil and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this story.