Wednesday a grocery store owner in Pennsylvania announced on Facebook that the store had been forced to throw out an estimated $35,000 worth of food after a woman intentionally coughed on several display cases. The store doesn’t believe the woman has the virus but they tossed the food to be safe. As far as they know, she did this as some kind of prank:
At 2:20 PM today, I got a call from our Hanover Township store. The manager informed me that a ￼woman, who the police know to be a chronic problem in the community, came in to the store and proceeded to purposely cough on our fresh produce, and a small section of our bakery, meat case and grocery.
While there is little doubt this woman was doing it as a￼ very twisted prank, we will not take any chances with the health and well-being of our customers. We ￼had no choice but to throw out all product she came in contact with. Working closely with the Hanover Township health inspector, we identified every area that she was in, we disposed of the product and thoroughly cleaned and disinfected everything.
Although we have not yet quantified the total loss,￼ we estimate the value to be well over $35,000. We are checking to see if our insurance company will cover it, but even if they do, our rates will surely go up next year.
Police were called and the District Attorney’s office has said they are taking this seriously. Of course there’s still a lot we don’t know, starting with why anyone would do this. Does she have a history of mental problems? If so that should obviously be taken into account. But this was a pretty costly hoax in terms of the dollar value of food that was thrown away.
Just how far could the charges for this apparent hoax go? According to Deputy Attorney General Jeff Rosen, the answer is that crimes like this could be viewed as terrorist threats:
“Because coronavirus appears to meet the statutory definition of a ‘biological agent’ ” under federal law, Rosen wrote, “such acts potentially could implicate the Nation’s terrorism-related statutes.” He cited particular laws governing the development and possession of biological agents for use as a weapon, threats by wire and mail and false information and hoaxes regarding biological weapons.
“Threats or attempts to use COVID-19 as a weapon against Americans will not be tolerated,” Rosen wrote.
So far, the federal terrorism laws have only been used once by the DOJ (against someone selling a fake coronavirus vaccine), but the story points out two other cases where state prosecutors have escalated cases involving coronavirus into terrorist threats. Tuesday, a man in Freehold, New Jersey was charged with making “terroristic threats” after he intentionally coughted on a grocery store worker:
The incident occurred at about 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 22, at the Wegmans on US Highway 9. The employee was concerned that Falcone was standing too close to her and an open display of prepared foods, so she requested that he step back as she covered the food. Instead, Falcone allegedly stepped forward to within 3 feet of her, leaned toward her, and purposely coughed. He allegedly laughed and said he was infected with the coronavirus. Falcone subsequently told two other employees they are lucky to have jobs…
“I commend the officers and detectives involved in this case for bringing criminal charges against the individual responsible for causing additional stress to the employees and patrons of Wegmans during these unprecedented times,” said Manalapan Police Chief Michael Fountain. “It sickens me to think an individual would lower their basic human standards during a time of crisis such as we are experiencing. As evident by these charges, law enforcement will not tolerate individuals breaking the law and placing others in fear during an already tense situation.”
I suspect this will wind up getting knocked down to a much less serious charge of harassment eventually but police and prosecutors are obviously looking to send a signal that this kind of behavior won’t be tolerated. Because, unfortunately, there are some real idiots out there. Like this guy:
His name is Cody Lee Pfister and this happened at a Walmart west of St. Louis. Pfister has also been charged with making a terrorist threat. His attorney argues that when the video was shot, the seriousness of the pandemic was not seen in the same way as it is now.
“Public conduct that was immature on March 10 looks completely differently through the lens of today,” Coyne said. “Everything has changed at warp speed, but that should not work retroactively and convert a tasteless and impulsive act into a criminal terrorist threat.”
March 10 does seems like a lifetime ago. March 11 was the day the number of infections in the U.S. reached 1,000 (though because of testing delays it was probably much higher). It’s still incredibly stupid behavior by a 26-year-old man so I’m not going to shed any tears if he winds up facing some jail time and a big fine. The same goes for Justin M. Rhodes who filmed himself wandering around a WalMart in North Carolina claiming he’d already tested positive for the virus [some NSFW language]:
He has also been arrested and charged with a felony:
On March 20, detectives arrested Rhodes and charged him with felony perpetrating a hoax in a public building and disorderly conduct. His first court appearance in March 30.
Many local residents cheered the arrest of Rhodes on the department’s Facebook page.
“Y’all, I’ve never seen our community come together so much over one post,” wrote one person.
People are pretty scared right now, so it’s not a good time to act like a 14-year-old on 4-chan. Intentionally sneezing on someone or threatening to spread the virus really is a threat or, at a minimum, a hoax threat. You don’t joke about having a bomb when you’re in an airport security line and, as of this month, you don’t joke about having coronavirus in a grocery store. People who act like this and expect to be let off like Jussie Smollett are in for a rude surprise.