PARIS -- The Louvre is no longer taking cash, because of the coronavirus outbreak.
The world's most-visited museum is shifting to card-only payments as part of new measures that helped persuade employees worried about getting sick to return to work Wednesday. Louvre workers who guard Leonardo da Vinci's “Mona Lisa” and other masterpieces walked off the job on Sunday, fearful of being contaminated by the museum’s flow of tourists from around the world.
The Louvre's move could bring it into conflict with the Bank of France, which said refusing cash is illegal and unnecessary.
Fears that banknotes might be vectors of disease aren't restricted to the Louvre.
At the Versailles Palace, another huge tourist draw on the outskirts of Paris, employees also are worrying about handling banknotes and tickets during the virus epidemic, although the former residence of French royalty still takes cash for now.
Public health historian Patrick Zylberman says the fear of getting diseases from money is age-old. In the Middle Ages, banknotes were cleansed with smoke because it was thought their use contributed to the spread of plague, Zylberman said. Egypt also smoked banknotes during a 1940s cholera epidemic, he said.
Zylberman laughed when told of the Louvre's new refusal of cash payments from the museum's tens of thousands of daily visitors.
“It's a bit risible to go backwards by several centuries and act as our predecessors did in the 17th century,” he said. “That shows how nervous people are during an epidemic.”
But the Bank of France said said vendors aren't allowed to refuse cash payments because banknotes are legal tender and because banks from the 19-country eurozone regularly test them to see if they present a danger to public health.
“There is no proof that the coronavirus has been spread by euro banknotes,” the bank said in a statement to The Associated Press.
The Louvre's decision to only accept bank cards for payments was among the anti-virus measures laid out in detail in a document sent to staff Tuesday and seen by the AP.
The Louvre confirmed Wednesday that the museum will no longer accept cash, although it also noted that half of its tickets sales already take place online.
“Cash is finished,” said Andre Sacristin, a union representative at the Louvre. “It is a temporary measure during the epidemic.”
“Money is very dirty and a vector of bacteria," Sacristin added. “It's hand-to-hand and there are direct physical contacts.”
Louvre employees will also be distanced from the snaking line of visitors in the room where the “Mona Lisa” is displayed. Instead of rubbing shoulders with visitors in the room itself, workers will be posted at entrances and on the edges of the habitually large crowds waiting to see the iconic portrait.
There have also been discussions between Eiffel Tower workers and managers over the use of banknotes, but no decision has been made.
At the Versailles Palace, union representative Damien Bodereau said staff members also are worried about handling cash and “worried about checking tickets.”
But refusing cash might not be practical, because “some people don't have bank cards," he said. “It could be complicated.”