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Signage for Tim Hortons' Roll Up the Rim contest is seen inside a Tim Hortons restaurant in Toronto, Friday, March 6, 2020.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

Tim Hortons is pulling 81-million cups designed for its Roll Up the Rim to Win promotion, amid concerns about the coronavirus.

The news comes just a day after the coffee-and-donuts chain confirmed it had cancelled a plan to give away 1.8-million reusable cups as part of a plan to give the contest a more environmentally-friendly focus. Tims is one of a number of coffee chains that confirmed this week they have temporarily suspended their usual practice of allowing customers to bring their own reusable cups for beverage orders. Starbucks, Second Cup and McDonald’s have all said they will put the practice on hold due to worries about the spread of COVID-19.

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The withdrawal of the Roll Up cups differs from the approach that Tim Hortons took in 2003, when the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome [SARS] also coincided with the promotion. At the time, the chain placed containers by cash registers and asked customers to show their prizes to staff before putting them in the containers, rather than handing them over.

“Seventeen years later, we have the benefit of a digital solution that we did not have back then," Duncan Fulton, chief corporate officer of Tim Hortons parent company Restaurant Brands International Inc. said in an interview on Saturday. “In the current public health environment, it just doesn’t seem like the right solution to run the cup program, where people are using their mouths to roll up the rim and tearing it off to give it to team members, and having team members need to dispose of those."

Worldwide, more than 101,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed and more than 3,400 deaths have been reported. In Canada, there are at least 51 confirmed and presumptive cases of the virus.

There were 4,014 Tim Hortons locations in Canada as of Dec. 31. The company has ordered extra gloves and hand sanitizing gel, and has reminded staff at all locations of the importance of regular hand washing. Staff regularly clean frequently-touched areas of the restaurants such as door handles and pin pads, Mr. Fulton said.

The annual Roll Up promotion is scheduled to begin on Wednesday, and runs until April 7. The company was already planning to encourage customers to participate digitally, distributing the paper cups with prizes hidden in the rims for only the first two weeks of the contest. Customers could also play through the chain’s mobile app, with an extra digital “roll” given to customers who brought their own cups. The chain is still granting the extra roll but will not fill orders in those cups. Now that the paper cups have been withdrawn, it will instead provide beverage giveaways at the cash at its stores for the first two weeks. The cash registers are being programmed to randomize the giveaways.

Roughly $16-million in prizes will be available through the digital contest, a slight increase from previous plans since bigger prizes that were hidden in cups -- such as cars, televisions and gift cards -- have been transferred to the digital platform. The in-store giveaways will be worth roughly $14-million in total, with the same chance of winning a free drink at the cash as customers would have had via the cups, roughly one in nine. Those who win at the cash will automatically receive the credit for their drink purchase.

The optics of disposing of so many unused cups could be an issue for Tim Hortons, which last year faced criticism for a contest centred on promoting single-use cups. Its parent company, Restaurant Brands International Inc. blamed weak quarterly results partly on waning interest in the contest.

The paper cups for hot beverages that fast-food chains distribute are generally lined with plastic, and many municipalities do not process them for recycling. Mr. Fulton said the company is collecting the cups from stores and will take them to a warehouse while it assesses the best way to make sure they are recycled.

“We’ve asked our sustainability team to find us a range of options,” he said. “...We’re the largest restaurant company in the country, and we take our responsibility for health and safety very seriously."

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