California temporarily suspends 10-cent grocery bag charge amid coronavirus crisis

A food delivery worker carries plastic bags full of take-out orders in Lower Manhattan. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Californians won’t be charged 10 cents per bag at the grocery store and retailers can again hand out thinner, single-use plastic bags under an executive order signed Thursday by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

It’s a change that retailers have wanted for weeks, as many major grocery chains have stopped letting customers bring in reusable bags over fears of spreading the new coronavirus. California, which has some of the nation’s strictest laws aimed at reducing plastic waste, banned stores from handing out single-use plastic bags and required them to charge 10 cents for all paper and plastic bags several years ago. Newsom’s order suspends those rules for 60 days.

“For the time being, in the state of emergency, this is just a great relief” to store employees and customers, said Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailer’s Association, which represents grocery chains like Safeway and Walmart as well as other major retailers. Some other states and governments have taken similar steps.

The executive order also allows grocery stores to temporarily stop accepting recyclable bottles and cans, which they then transfer to recycling centers. Consumers will still be charged the deposit when they purchase the bottles.

RELATED: Plastic grocery bags will be banned in California

In the order, Newsom wrote it is necessary to minimize the risk of exposure for workers performing essential activities, and that contact exposure at retail stores or recycling centers could spread COVID-19.

But not everyone supported the order. Mark Murray, of Californians Against Waste, said reusable bags are safe and “pose zero threat” if consumers bag their own groceries. He pointed to guidelines for grocery workers released last week by the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health that offer employees three ways to deal with reusable bags: Not touch or use them, ask customers to leave them in their cart, or ask customers to bag their own groceries.

“Retailers, while maybe well intended, inflicted this costly and unnecessary wound on themselves by discouraging consumers from bringing their own bags,” he said in a statement. “The simple and safe solution for consumers and stores is for everyone to bring their reusable bags and bag their own groceries in line with Cal-OSHA guidelines.”

RELATED: Stay up to date on all coronavirus-related information

Michelin, of the California Retailers Association, said some stores in recent weeks had picked up the 10-cent bag fee while others were still charging consumers.

The Thursday executive order also granted an extension for some customers facing deadlines to renew expired licenses or ID cards, suspended late fees for expired vehicle registrations, and allowed electronic filings of certain notices related to the California Environmental Quality Act.

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