Man Who Claimed He Had Coronavirus Arrested on Terrorism Charges for Coughing on Shoppers in Walmart

A man who allegedly coughed on shoppers in a Tennessee Walmart while shouting that he had coronavirus was arrested and charged with violating the terrorism hoax act.

District Attorney General Matthew Stowe said the man's behavior was an act of terrorism in a press release. The man was also charged with disorderly conduct and reckless endangerment, according to Nashville's News Channel 5.

"What might have been a joke to one person, became a frightening threat to several others," he said. "A violation of this sort where the agent is indeed an active agent is an act of terrorism and a Class A felony; violation for the hoax of spreading is a Class C felony," Stowe added.

The United States' Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen wrote in a memorandum to federal law enforcement officials in March that coronavirus "appears to meet the statutory definition of a 'biological agent'" and as such, those purposefully transmitting the disease could potentially be charged with terrorism.

Those found guilty of terrorist acts face some of the most serious penalties in the legal system. Depending on the nature of the terrorist threat and the state, a conviction for making a terrorist threat can be given a fine ranging from $200 to more than $250,000 and a prison sentence of up to 100 years or more.

In March, the state of Tennessee launched the "Do Your Part, Stay Apart" campaign to help fight the spread of coronavirus.

Coronavirus pandemic
This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses, including the novel coronavirus identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019, 2020. CDC/Alissa Eckert/Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

"COVID-19 is a serious threat to the health and livelihood of our state that must be treated seriously by Tennesseans so that we can slow the spread of this virus," explained Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, who urged residents to help "keep our people healthy and get our lives back to normal as soon as possible."

Social distancing is the key to keeping people safe, said Governor Lee. "Right now, the best way for us to care for one another is to keep our distance—and take care of our neighbors. Give them a call or video chat. We're all in this together. Please do your part, by staying apart."

Any member of the public who acts in a threatening manner will be arrested and charged, reiterated General Matthew Stowe. "During this emergency and quarantine, we will protect the general public by enforcing the Governor's orders," said Stowe.

"Anyone who refuses to adhere to law enforcement warnings runs the risk of being arrested and charged. This pandemic is not a joke, it is a serious matter and can be fatal to some people."

Coronavirus is a highly contagious virus that attacks the lungs. It originated in Wuhan, China, but the U.S. is now the epicenter of the disease, with more than 368,000 coronavirus cases and over 10,000 deaths. Approximately 20,000 people have recovered from the virus to date.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.