George Falcone, 50, was charged with harassment, obstructing administration of law or other governmental function, and terroristic threats in the third degree, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced Tuesday.
According to a statement from the Grewal's office, Falcone was in a Wegmans when an employee, concerned that he was standing too close to her and the food on display, asked Falcone to step back as she covered the food. He then allegedly moved closer to the employee, leaned toward her and coughed, then laughed and claimed he was infected with the coronavirus.
Falcone also told two other Wegmans workers that "they are lucky to have jobs."
He refused to provide identification or cooperate when a Manalapan Township Police Department officer approached him at the store, and only identified himself after 40 minutes, the attorney general said. Falcone was subsequently allowed to leave and was charged Tuesday following an investigation.
When asked if there are expected to be more terrorist threat charges for those who threaten to spread the coronavirus, the attorney general's spokesperson directed BuzzFeed News to Grewal's remarks.
"We must do everything we can to deter this type of conduct and any similar conduct that harms others during this emergency," Grewal said in his statement. "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."
Politico reported Tuesday that the Justice Department told law enforcement agencies and US attorneys around the country that people who intentionally make threats about spreading the coronavirus could be charged as terrorists under federal law.
The report sparked pushback among civil rights groups, including the ACLU's National Security Project director, who called it a "counterproductive and harmful message" in a pandemic.
"The Justice Department is threatening to use vague, overbroad, and flawed coercive powers that will make people more afraid to seek care," Hina Shamsi said.
Falcone is not the first New Jersey resident to allegedly threaten to spread the virus, though the state Attorney General’s Office said he is the only one charged with terrorist threats by the state so far.
Last week, Lea Piazza, a 28-year-old woman who was arrested for drunk driving, allegedly coughed repeatedly on a Hanover police officer and said, "by the way, I have the coronavirus and so do you." She claimed her boyfriend was hospitalized over the coronavirus and receiving treatment.
The police department contacted public health officials and ordered three officers who came into contact with Piazza to self-quarantine, NJ.com reported.
However, police said they later determined her claim was "100% false" after an investigation. The man she claimed was her boyfriend had only been on one date with her and was in the hospital for an unrelated tooth issue, police said.
The Hanover Police Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Piazza was charged with DWI, reckless driving, refusal to take a breathalyzer test, and false public alarm over her coronavirus claim.