Here is a sincerely modest proposal for promoting social distancing, at least in New Jersey: give us self-service gas. Please. New Jersey’s been debating this issue fruitlessly for years. Every other state has it. Even Jersey’s own gas stations want it at this point. And some towns are begging for it, as well. Now is the time, for God’s sake. Naturally, the state legislature and the station owners’ association want to relax the rules “for now,” so that they have the freedom to default back to business as usual when the pandemic passes. I guess we’ll have to fight that battle when we get to it. But let’s at least have self-serve now.
I last ranted on this topic about five years ago, in response to this article in The New York Times. (Here’s a more recent one.) You can re-visit my rant on the subject here, if you want; scroll down to the “postscript” half-way through. But honestly, you shouldn’t need to. All I did was rant the obvious at excessive length. Feel free to skip it. This one’s a no-brainer.
We should retain some full-service islands and attendants for motorists who, for medical reasons, may have trouble pumping their own gas. But that’s compatible with plenty of self-serve. If forty-nine states can figure out how to do it, so can we. Or so I’d like to think.
One thing to consider though: the handles on the pumps are prime sources for surface-contact spread of disease. This at least is easier to control via full-service.
And the buttons on the credit card reader, of course.
But I don’t know how to compare the transmission dangers posed by customers interacting with station attendants from their cars vs. customers all handling the same pump handles and pay buttons.
Same response to both Roderick and Michael:
Spread by surface is much easier to control than spread through airborne particles. Here is the difference. If I’m a station attendant, I am exposed–without proper PPE–to many, many motorists in a day, some of whom could be infected. It’s hard to do a transaction without coming close to the motorist, and hard to avoid airborne droplets unless you remember never to breathe while you do the transaction. But that’s hard to do if you have to speak.
The attendant still faces the same transmission dangers involved with taking money, taking credit cards, etc., then touching the pump handles, pay buttons, etc. But it’s much harder for a station attendant to remember to wash after every transaction.
Now imagine self-serve gas. Each motorist takes responsibility for spread-by-surface in his or her own case. She gets out of the car, runs her credit card through the thing, touches a few buttons, picks up the handle, pumps the gas. What she has to remember throughout is that her hands and credit card are now presumptively infected, as are any surfaces she touches when she gets inside her car (on the assumption she makes sure to touch nothing else). Then she drives to her destination, disinfects her hands, disinfects her car. It’s tedious and involved, but no different nowadays from any trip outside. The only addition is: disinfect the interior of the car. By hypothesis, you’ve eliminated airborne transmission, and you’ve made the surface transmission issue more manageable.
If we don’t do this, gas station attendants will go the same way as bus drivers and other transit workers. I don’t know if any gas station attendants have died yet, but eventually they will. Yes, self-serve gas will render some of them unemployed, but better unemployed than dead. (And not all of them will be unemployed.) If any of the unemployed are desperate for work, I would suggest working in environmental services, which is now hiring, pays better than pumping gas, and at the better establishments, gives employees proper PPE. Otherwise, there are unemployment benefits. But having people breathe on you all day is a non-starter.
The risk of airborne transmission for customers is lower (given fewer transactions per unit of time), but real.
I can’t help mentioning that a good part of this problem would be mitigated if gas stations had functioning public bathrooms, but they don’t. I don’t so much blame the station owners in this regard as the people who trash the bathrooms and make them such an expensive proposition to maintain. This may not be a “market failure” in the classic sense, but it’s a failure in our market. Prices send signals, and so do failures of this kind. The signal is that there’s something wrong with a society as rich as ours that can’t afford public bathrooms.
An email comment from a reader, Chris Paglinco: