Enforcement of New York’s plastic bag ban has been delayed as the state grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.

The state banned single-use plastic bags March 1st, with enforcement set to start May 15th. But on Thursday, a state Supreme Court order directed the state Department of Environmental Conservation to only enforce the ban after June 15th.

“This does not affect the local laws in New York City, Suffolk County and Tompkins County requiring that the 5-cent paper carryout bag reduction fee must be charged on paper carryout bags,” the DEC said on its website.

The order is simply a recognition that thinly-staffed state court systems are currently not equipped to handle any legal challenges over the bag ban, the Albany Times Union reported.

Once enforcement does begin, retailers who violate the law will get a warning for their first violation. After a warning, retailers get a $250 fine. For violations after that in the same calendar year, penalties are $500.

The enthusiasm for reusable bags has shifted during the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions on shopping at brick-and-mortar stores during New York's PAUSE.

Food safety experts have said there is no evidence that reusable bags pose a greater risk of transmitting the COVID-19 virus than single-use plastic bags. “At this time, there is no link between reusable bags and COVID-19. Reusable bags are not considered a significant risk factor in the spread of COVID-19 and as such do not need to be banned from stores,” according to North Carolina State University Extension’s program in food safety.

Stephen Morse, Professor of Epidemiology at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, has told Gothamist that “there is limited data on how long the virus can last on cloth, also varies with temperature and humidity...Unless you’re in a highly contaminated environment, the amount of virus on the clothing is likely to be minimal, and the risks are probably small.”

Nonetheless, fears are mounting: On March 21st, New Hampshire temporarily banned the use of reusable shopping bags.

One WNYC staffer reported her local Trader Joe’s store in Manhattan was not allowing shoppers to use reusable bags, though it’s unclear if the store is then charging the five-cent paper bag fee. Trader Joe's corporate office did not return a request for comment Saturday.

Last month the Plastics Industry Association requested that the Department of Health and Human Services reconsider plastic bags and to “speak out against bans on these products as a public safety risk and help stop the rush to ban these products by environmentalists and elected officials that puts consumers and workers at risk,” Politico reported.

In an interview with The Verge, Greenpeace USA senior research specialist Ivy Schlegel said the Plastics Industry Association request was tantamount to “disaster capitalism” in “using this moment where everything is in chaos and people are legitimately concerned about public health to turn back the clock to go back to a world where plastic is the norm, rather than right now where reusables are becoming the norm in many places,” she said.

A man who works at a New York City Trader Joe’s store said in an Insider interview that he “personally will never take someone’s reusable bag.”

“No offense to anyone, but it goes back to good practice. I don't know where those bags have been. I don't know the last time the bag has been washed. I have a family at home including higher-risk members, and I'm gonna do whatever I can to make sure that they don't get sick. So I'm not touching your reusable bag,” he said. “So, how we address that issue is with multiple registers. What we do is, we have two small registers that are open at the moment. If you're in line for the small register, know that we will not take a reusable bag. If you're at a large register, and you want to use a reusable bag, you have to pack your own bag. Because we're not touching them, we're not putting ourselves at that kind of risk.”

“It is always a good practice to clean and disinfect shopping bags after each use, and to pay extra attention to bags used to carry raw animal products,” North Carolina State University advises, with the following guidelines:

  • "Plastic and nylon bags - Clean inside and outside of the bag with soapy water and rinse. Spray or wipe down the bags inside and out with diluted bleach solution...or recommended disinfectant. Allow bags to air dry completely before storing and using."
  • "For cloth bags - Wash in warm water with normal laundry detergent. Dry on the warmest setting possible.