A New Jersey man who allegedly coughed on a grocery store employee and told her he has coronavirus has been charged with making terrorist threats and could face up to seven years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines.
George Falcone was charged on Tuesday after authorities say he "purposefully" coughed on an employee who warned him against standing too closely to a display of prepared food, according to New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S Grewal.
The statement says that he "allegedly laughed and said he was infected with the coronavirus" before telling two other employees that they are "lucky to have jobs" at the Wegman's store in Manalapan.
He also was charged with obstructing administration of the law and harassment.
Attorney General Grewal said: "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 ... Just as we are cracking down on bias offences and those who use the pandemic to fuel hatred and prejudice, we vow to respond swiftly and strongly whenever someone commits a criminal offence that uses the coronavirus to generate panic or discord."
The incident occurred on Sunday, and summonses were issued on Tuesday. Mr Falcone will appear in court at a later date, according to the attorney general.
Mr Falcone's case follows similar terrorism charges against a man in Missouri who police say had filmed himself licking items in a Walmart, then posted video to social media, saying: "Who's afraid of the coronavirus?"
Police in Warrenton say they were alerted to Cody Pfister's video by people in the Netherlands, Ireland and the UK.
The video was posted on 11 March. He was charged with making terrorist threats in the second-degree for after he allegedly "caused a false belief or fear that a condition involving danger to life existed" and acted "with reckless disregard of the risk causing the evacuation, quarantine or closure of any portion" of the store, according to court documents.
In a memo to US attorneys and federal law enforcement on Tuesday, the Justice Department told officials that threats or attempts to spread coronavirus can be considered terrorism.
Covid-19 meets a statutory definition of a biological agent that can be weaponised, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said.
The memo says: "Threats or attempts to use Covid-19 as a weapon against Americans will not be tolerated."
Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, said that the decision send a "counterproductive and harmful message" during the pandemic response.
"Rather than heeding public health experts' advice to promote public trust in science and reduce prison populations, the Justice Department is threatening to use vague, over-broad, and flawed coercive powers that will make people more afraid to seek care" during the emergency, the ACLU said.
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