A New Jersey man has been criminally charged after authorities allege he purposely coughed on a Wegman’s employee working on a display of food, telling the woman he had the novel coronavirus.
George Falcone, 50, of Freehold, was charged Tuesday with terroristic threats, harassment and obstructing the administration of law or other governmental function, according to New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal's office.
The Attorney General’s Office will prosecute the case, which was investigated by the Manalapan Police Department and the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office.
"These are extremely difficult times in which all of us are called upon to be considerate of each other -- not to engage in intimidation and spread fear, as alleged in this case," Grewal said in a statement. "We must do everything we can to deter this type of conduct and any similar conduct that harms others during this emergency.
“Just as we are cracking down on bias offenses and those who use the pandemic to fuel hatred and prejudice, we vow to respond swiftly and strongly whenever someone commits a criminal offense that uses the coronavirus to generate panic or discord.”
Information compiled by Johns Hopkins University shows a total of 19,675 coronavirus deaths across the globe as of Wednesday morning. More than 438,000 cases of illness have been reported.
According to a news release, Falcone was at a Wegmans in Manalapan around 6:30 p.m. Sunday when the employee became concerned that he was too close to her and an open display of prepared food.
Health officials have cautioned that people should stay at least 6 feet away from one another to avoid spreading the virus.
The employee asked Falcone to step back while she covered the food.
"Instead, Falcone allegedly stepped forward to within 3 feet of her, leaned toward her, and purposely coughed," the news release said. "He allegedly laughed and said he was infected with the coronavirus. Falcone subsequently told two other employees they are lucky to have jobs."
A Manalapan police detective working a security detail at the store approached Falcone, who was uncooperative when questioned, refusing to give his name or provide his driver’s license. After about 40 minutes, he identified himself and the detective allowed him to go home.
Further investigation following the incident led to the charges against Falcone.
"Exploiting people's fears and creating panic during a pandemic emergency is reprehensible," Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni said in a statement. "In times like these, we need to find ways to pull together as a community instead of committing acts that further divide us."
Manalapan Police Chief Michael Fountain commended his detectives who investigated the case against Falcone.
"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," Fountain said.
The terroristic threat charge carries a sentence of three to five years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000. The obstruction charge carries up to 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
If convicted of harassment, Falcone could face up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
Falcone is not the only person charged with a terroristic threat Tuesday for not only failing to abide by social distancing guidelines but for potentially exposing others to the virus.
Cody Lee Pfister, 26, of Warrenton, Missouri, is charged with second-degree terroristic threat for licking a row of deodorant sticks in a Walmart there earlier this month. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Pfister recorded himself licking the items and posted the video online.
“Who’s scared of coronavirus?” Pfister said before licking the deodorant.
The video was seen around the world, authorities said.
Earlier this month, a Wisconsin woman licked the door handle of a grocery store freezer "in protest" of the coronavirus, according to Newsweek.
"While sanitizing handles in the freezer section, store manager Marty reported looking over at a woman who proceeded to look at him and lick the door handle of a freezer door," a police report obtained by the news magazine said.