A man has been accused of exploiting people’s fears by deliberately coughing on a supermarket worker while claiming he had coronavirus.
George Falcone, 50, has been charged with making terroristic threats while in a branch of Wegmans in Manalapan, New Jersey, on Sunday evening.
According to the state’s attorney general Gurbir Grewal, an employee inside the store asked Falcone to move away from prepared foods while she covered them up.
It is alleged that at this point Falcone leaned towards the woman and deliberately coughed on her and laughed, telling her he had coronavirus.
Falcone went on to tell two other employees that they were lucky to have jobs, and initially refused to identify himself when approached by a police officer, according to prosecutors.
After Falcone was charged, Monmouth County prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni said: “Exploiting people’s fears and creating panic during a pandemic emergency is reprehensible.
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“In times like these, we need to find ways to pull together as a community instead of committing acts that further divide us.”
Grewal added: “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.”
Falcone has denied the accusations, telling press agency Reuters that he “didn't cough on anyone and never mentioned corona”.
Over 55,000 people have tested positive for coronavirus in the United States, while nearly 800 people in the country have died, according to John Hopkins University.
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US president Donald Trump has said he wants to reopen the US for business in weeks, not months, as he claimed continued closures could result in more deaths than COVID-19 itself.
He told reporters: "We can't have the cure be worse than the problem.
"We have to open our country because that causes problems that, in my opinion, could be far bigger problems.”
Trump acknowledged there were trade-offs, but claimed that if closures stretched on for months there would be "probably more death from that than anything that we're talking about with respect to the virus”.
Health experts have made clear that unless Americans continue to dramatically limit social interaction, the number of infections will overwhelm the healthcare system, as it has in parts of Italy, leading to many more deaths.
While the worst outbreaks are concentrated in certain parts of the country, such as New York, experts say the highly infectious disease is certain to spread.
Trump tweeted that he would be waiting until the end of the current 15-day period of recommended closures and self-isolation to make any decisions.