The past few weeks have been tough for Gerrity’s Supermarket, a small family-owned chain in northeastern Pennsylvania. Like grocers nationwide, it has been deluged with orders and has struggled to keep basics such as chicken breasts and toilet paper on the shelves. Employees have been working overtime, pausing only for five-second breaks to wipe everything down with disinfectant wipes.
Then, on Wednesday afternoon, a woman came in and deliberately coughed all over the produce section, meat case and bakery department, co-owner Joe Fasula said. The store had to throw away more than $35,000 worth of food.
“Today was a very challenging day,” Fasula wrote in a message to shoppers on Facebook. “While there is little doubt this woman was doing it as a very twisted prank, we will not take any chances with the health and well-being of our customers.”
With most other businesses shuttered in an attempt to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, grocery stores have found themselves on the front lines of the global pandemic. Numerous supermarket employees nationwide have already tested positive for COVID-19, and fears about being exposed to the virus run rampant. Meanwhile, a disturbing trend has emerged: People deliberately coughing on workers, other shoppers or the food.
On Wednesday, Fasula posted pictures of employees carrying away carts full of fresh cucumbers, bell peppers, eggplants, onions and potatoes that were destined for the trash. “It truly saddens us,” he wrote on Twitter. “We are doing our best to provide everyone a safe environment & the items they need during this time including our seniors & those who are immunocompromised when there is already panic w/ supply & hoarding. To have to waste food due to this breaks our hearts!”
Retailers have been slammed by anxious shoppers trying to stock up on dried pasta and canned beans, and Gerrity’s is no exception. “It is crazy. It’s even worse than it is during the holidays. It’s so busy,” employee Amanda Witzel told WNEP last week. “We can’t even take a breath.”
But as pictures of empty grocery store shelves have fueled hoarding and panic-buying, the chain has won praise for being transparent about the unprecedented challenges of the moment. In a message to shoppers last week, Fasula expressed frustration about not having enough manpower to take orders from senior citizens over the phone, and noted that his wife and a few personal friends had stepped in to make sure that those who couldn’t safely go to a grocery store still got their deliveries.
The empty shelves that shoppers were encountering weren’t a sign of nationwide food shortages, he added, but instead could be attributed to bottlenecks in the supply chain as warehouse workers and truck drivers struggled to keep up with the sudden demand.
“Here’s the best answer we can give you,” he wrote. “We ordered everything. We don’t know when the truck will come. We don’t know what will be on the truck. We don’t know how much of any item will be on the truck. If it’s here, we don’t know if we will have it when you get here.”
On Wednesday afternoon, a new set of challenges arose when the woman, “who the police know to be a chronic problem in the community,” came into the Hanover Township, Pennsylvania, store, Fasula wrote. When employees realized that she appeared to be intentionally coughing on food, they escorted her out and called the police and local health inspectors.
While the woman isn’t known to be infected with the novel coronavirus, police plan on testing her just to be sure, Fasula said. Pennsylvania has confirmed 1,260 coronavirus cases as of early Thursday. Fifteen people, including one in Hanover Township, have died from the virus.
In the meantime, all the areas of the store that the woman visited had to be stripped bare, sanitized and disinfected.
“Unbelievable,” wrote one of the thousands of people to respond to his Facebook post. “This is a shame. Also more work for your already tired employees.”
The woman, who has not been publicly identified, is undergoing a mental health evaluation, the Hanover Township Police Department said late Wednesday night. Police are continuing to investigate the incident and plan on filing criminal charges.
People who purposefully spread the coronavirus could be charged as terrorists, the Justice Department said in a Tuesday memo to federal prosecutors. And even those who aren’t carrying the virus can face serious charges for deliberately coughing or breathing on other people.
On Tuesday, the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office announced that a man had intentionally coughed on an employee of a Wegmans store in Manalapan, N.J., after she asked him not to stand so close to a display of prepared foods, then claimed that he was infected with the coronavirus. He was subsequently charged with harassment, obstructing law enforcement and making terroristic threats.
A similar incident took place in Pennsylvania last week during “seniors only” hours at a Karns Foods store. A 57-year-old man allegedly saw a senior citizen who was recovering from pneumonia and mocked him for wearing a face mask and gloves. He then deliberately coughed near the man and told him that he had coronavirus, police said. He now faces charges of making terroristic threats, simple assault by physical menace, disorderly conduct and harassment.
Officials don’t take these kinds of incidents lightly, given that grocery store employees already have a high risk of being exposed to the coronavirus. Cashiers can’t avoid coming into contact with customers, and one Whole Foods employee in Atlanta told the Atlantic that he overheard a shopper telling someone that he was “pretty sure” he had the virus but needed to get a few things before he went to the doctor.
“I tell all of our employees that we are on the front lines,” Fasula told WNEP last week. “We are the ones that are going to hold our country together. I don’t mean just my store. Grocery workers in general and health-care workers. Imagine what would happen if the admissions staff at a hospital staff stopped showing up. Imagine if the cashiers at a grocery store stopped showing up. We need help.”