COVID-19 is considered a "biological weapon."
It's generally considered rude to cough on someone. Since COVID-19 is considered a "biological weapon," coughing on someone with the intent to "infect them" with the coronavirus could even be considered misdemeanor assault, according to Virginia Beach police department spokespeople and statements posted on Nextdoor.
Virginia Beach police officials say they've received enough complaints about people intentionally coughing on each other that the department decided to seek legal advice from the City Commonwealth Attorney's office, the Virginian-Pilot reports. The conclusion, according to a post by Master Police Officer Allen Perry on the neighborhood forum Nextdoor, is that it could theoretically translate to a charge of misdemeanor assault. In Virginia, misdemeanor assault is punishable by up to $2,500 in fines and up to a year in jail.
“Please be respectful of others and keep your germs to yourself,” Officer Allen wrote in the post.
Police Department spokesperson Linda Kuehn says she doesn't have an exact number for how many complaints they've received, but it was enough for the department to seek legal advice from city prosecutors. She says no one has yet been charged.
Newport News, Hampton, and Chesapeake police say they've also received a significant number of complaints on this count.
On the national scale, this is becoming a thing. One man in Tennessee was charged with assault after roaming around a Walmart, announcing that he had COVID-19, and coughing on people intentionally. (It is unclear whether or not the man actually had been diagnosed with COVID-19.) After apparently causing an obnoxious scene, he was arrested and charged with violations of the state's terrorism hoax act, reckless endangerment, and disorderly conduct, according to a news release from state DA Matthew Stowe. Stowe said that since COVID-19 is a dangerous disease, it is classified as an "agent of biological warfare" and therefore intentionally spreading qualifies as an act of terrorism in the state of Tennessee. In Virginia, it's just assault—for now.
"This pandemic is not a joke, it is a serious matter and can be fatal to some people,” Stowe said in the release.
A New Jersey man was charged with obstruction of law, harassment, and making terroristic threats, after performing a similar stunt in a Wegman's in Manalapan.
“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,” New Jersey's Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said in a statement.
New Jersey ranks second-highest in coronavirus diagnoses in the nation, after New York, which makes up almost one-half of all cases nationwide. As of Wednesday, April 8, New Jersey had 7,533 confirmed cases in Bergen County alone and 44,416 cases statewide, compared to 3,645 across the entire state of Virginia.
Similar cases are surfacing across the nation, including (of course) Florida, where a man complained to a store employee coughed on them intentionally. He was charged with a felony after the state deemed the virus a deadly weapon.
According to WBAL, the man allegedly said the whole national situation was "getting out of hand," so he said he intentionally coughs "behind anyone with a mask on." After paying for his items, he apparently announced he was going to go "cough on people" at another store. The New Jersey man was also laughing as he "coughed on people."
While legal repercussions might seem a bit extreme, the legal rhetoric is based on the public health threat of community spread. To be fair, this is not 1961 East Berlin, and no, you will not be charged with assault for coughing on someone accidentally.
These laws vary by state. In Virginia, assault charges may be warranted if a person "commits the crime of assault by performing an overt (physical) act intended to inflict bodily harm on the victim while having the present ability to inflict harm or injury."
Many legal experts wonder how this would hold up in court. But the point isn't to prosecute people—the point is that we shouldn't be doing this.
“It would help if the alleged ‘assaulter’ said something like, ‘I’m going to cough on you to make you worry that I’ve given you Covid-19.’ But he probably wouldn’t be that obliging,” District Public Defender Cal Bain told the Pilot.
The official Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines (and the language in many states' social distancing guidelines) say that if you need to cough in public, cough into your elbow or your sleeve (preferably with a tissue), not into your hands, and if you have a cough at all, just stay home.
Updated CDC guidelines say that to reduce the threat of community spread, all Americans regardless of symptoms should wear a "cloth face covering" when in public for everyone's protection.
No one has been charged with assault for coughing "on" someone yet in the City of Virginia Beach, but if someone asks you, yes, it is a crime to knowingly take action to willingly expose someone to the threat of a life-threatening pandemic virus.
Also, you guys—that's disgusting.
Have you seen anyone doing this in public, and how do you feel about this kind of behavior? We want to hear your stories.