After many states and cities put plastic bag bans on hold in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, some are now beginning to reverse course and bring back those laws.
California's government said June 22 it is reinstating the bag ban it suspended in April, and Vermont's state government announced it's moving ahead with the July 1 start of its ban on plastic bags and expanded polystyrene containers.
States and local governments coast to coast had put bag laws on hold when COVID-19 hit, out of concern that reusable bags could spread the virus and increase retail and grocery workers' exposure.
But some are now dialing that back.
Hilton Head, S.C., for example, is banning plastic bags again starting July 7, after suspending its 2018 ban to help restaurants cope with heavy volumes of takeout orders.
In Vermont, the head of the state's Agency of Natural Resources said it sees no health reasons to delay the start of the July 1 ban, which includes plastic bags and polystyrene containers. The state passed it in 2019.
"Reusable bags can be used safely and are not any more of a risk than other surfaces that customers and employees come in contact with in retail transactions," ANR Secretary Julie Moore said in an email.
An agency fact sheet on limiting the spread of the coronavirus said it appears to remain on plastic and stainless steel surfaces longer than fibrous surfaces like cloth or cardboard, and it urged people to wash reusable bags regularly.
"Plastic bags take hundreds of years to break down, can harm wildlife, clog recycling machinery and, together with other single-use products, make up an estimated 32 percent of Vermont's waste," she said.
Vermont's law requires customers to use reusable bags or pay 10 cents each for paper bags.
But other states are maintaining their policies. Maine suspended its plastic bag ban until January, and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, who banned reusable bags in March, told media there recently that it was not time yet to allow them again.
The city of Minneapolis announced June 25 that it would delay a mandatory 5-cent-per-bag fee on single-use paper and plastic bags until Oct. 1. The city had planned to start enforcing the law on July 1, but now it is delaying that because of the pandemic.
Groups like the New Jersey Food Council, which represents grocery stores, have urged officials to temporarily suspend plastic bag bans to protect employees.
The New Jersey group, which said it had been working with environmental groups on a statewide paper and plastic bag ban before the pandemic, urged suspending bans currently on the books in cities. It suggested waiting until after the pandemic is over to resume work on statewide programs to "stem the flood of plastics."
"Store employees staffing the checkout lines and interacting with customers simply do not want to touch a customer's reusable bags in fear that these bags are harboring the invisible COVID-19 virus," the group said in an April statement.
California, however, is joining Vermont. Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an order June 22 reinstating the state's bag ban law, which he had suspended April 22.
The environmental group Californians Against Waste said it was grateful Newsom allowed the 60-day suspension to expire.
CAW said consumers with reusable bags will still be obligated to bag their own groceries to limit exposure for store employees or other customers.
It said bringing back the plastic bag ban will "reduce an unnecessary source of plastic pollution."
"Health officials agree that when consumers bag their own groceries in their own reusable bags there is no risk to public health," CAW Executive Director Mark Murray said.
Greenpeace released a letter June 22 from more than 100 doctors, public health specialists and scientists saying that reusable packaging with good hygiene can be safely used during the pandemic, and it noted evidence that the virus spreads primarily from inhaling droplets instead of surface contact.
But the Plastics Industry Association has urged government officials to suspend bag bans. In a March letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, the association pointed to studies that reusable bags can harbor viruses and bacteria and said they could be spread through a grocery store.