- Individuals who threaten or attempt to spread COVID-19 could face terrorism charges, a Justice Department memo says, because the virus meets the statutory definition of a “biological agent.”
- Charges have already been dropped in places like Missouri, where a man recorded himself licking a line of deodorants in a Wallmart.
- In New Jersey, another man was charged after purposely coughing on a grocery store employee before laughing and saying he had the virus.
- Others could soon face similar charges, like a woman who intentionally coughed all over products in Pennsylvania grocery store, forcing the store to toss more than $35,000 worth of goods.
The Justice Department’s second-highest-ranking official said Tuesday that people who threaten or intentionally attempt to spread the coronavirus could face criminal charges under terrorism laws.
Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen sent a memo with the guidance to top Justice Department leaders, law enforcement agency chiefs, and U.S. Attorneys across the country.
In it, he said prosecutors and investigators could come across cases of “purposeful exposure and infection of others with COVID-19.”
“Because Coronavirus appears to meet the statutory definition of a ‘biological agent’… such acts potentially could implicate the Nation’s terrorism-related statutes,” Rosen wrote. “Threats or attempts to use COVID-19 as a weapon against Americans will not be tolerated.”
He did not state whether or not his warning was precautionary or if it came in response to reports of intentional exposure, but prosecutors at the state level have already begun pressing terrorism charges against those accused of maliciously trying to infect others.
People Have Already Been Charged
Prosecutors in Missouri, for instance, charged 26-year-old Cody Lee Pfister after he posted a video of himself licking merchandise in a Walmart. The video shows Pfister saying, “Whos’s scared of coronavirus? Don’t touch your mouth?” He then licks a row of deodorant sticks.
The City of Warrenton Police Department said Monday that Pfister was taken into custody after it received numerous calls from people reporting the video. The calls came from local residents and even people from places as far as the Netherlands, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.
Pfister was later charged with a terrorist threat in the second degree. In Missouri, making a terrorist threat in the second degree means ignoring the risk of “causing the evacuation, quarantine or closure of any portion of a building.” The crime is a class E felony, which means it can be met with a prison sentence of up to four years and a fine.
New Jersey was also hit with a case of similar reckless behavior, with the state’s Attorney General’s Office saying Tuesday that it charged a man for his behavior in a Wegmans store.
According to a news release, a store employee was concerned that the man, 50-year-old George Falcone, was standing too close to her and an open food display. He then “allegedly stepped forward to within 3 feet of her, leaned toward her, and purposely coughed.”
Falcone also reportedly laughed and said he was infected with the coronavirus, then told two other employees they were lucky to have jobs. He was ultimately charged with harassment, obstructing administration of law or other governmental function, and terroristic threats in the third degree. The last charge alone is punishable by up to 3 to 5 years in prison and fines of up to $15,000.
A woman in Pennsylvania may also soon be hit with terroristic threat charges. Gerrity’s Supermarket, a small family-owned chain in northeastern Pennsylvania, said a woman came into one of its stores on Wednesday and purposely coughed all over fresh produce, the bakery department, and meat case section.
The store co-owner, Joe Fasula, wrote a post on the store’s Facebook page saying, “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. We had no choice but to throw out all product she came in contact with.”
The store said it hadn’t yet quantified the total loss, but estimated it to be well over $35,000. “We are checking to see if our insurance company will cover it, but even if they do, our rates will surely go up next year,” the post continued.
“I am also absolutely sick to my stomach about the loss of food. While it is always a shame when food is wasted, in these times when so many people are worried about the security of our food supply, it is even more disturbing.”
Police were contacted and the local District Attorney’s office promised to aggressively pursue numerous charges. While the woman isn’t known to be infected with COVID-19, police say they plan on making every effort to ensure she is tested.
The woman, who the store says police “know to be a chronic problem in the community,” will also undergo a mental health evaluation, authorities said.
The Justice Department’s guidance may now hopefully deter some people from carrying out these careless acts, but the reports of incidents themselves serve as a reminder to be extra cautious about touching your face during the pandemic.
While the virus is believed to mainly spread between people who are in close contract, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has warned that “it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.”
See what others are saying: (Politico) (Business Insider) (The Washington Post)
Biden Issues Targeted Eviction Moratorium for Counties With High Community Transmission
While more limited than the previous eviction ban, the new policy applies to all areas with “substantial” and “high” COVID transmission, which currently includes 80% of counties that compose 90% of the population.
New Eviction Ban
Three days after the federal eviction ban expired, the Biden administration issued a new, more limited moratorium that will extend until Oct. 3.
Unlike the last freeze, the latest version announced Tuesday only pertains to areas of the country experiencing what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labeled “substantial” and “high” cases of COVID-19.
However, the rule still applies to the majority of the country given the new surges driven by the delta variant.
According to the CDC, 80% of counties that make up 90% of the population are currently experiencing substantial or high community transmission.
While not a full ban, many housing still advocates cheered the Biden administration, which has faced immense pressure to help the millions of Americans who risked losing their homes once the previous freeze expired.
“This is a tremendous relief for millions of people who were on the cusp of losing their homes and, with them, their ability to stay safe during the pandemic,” Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said in a statement Tuesday.
Still, others noted that there are outstanding issues with the new policy.
First and foremost, while the moratorium covers most Americans, it does not cover all. According to reports, there are counties in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New York that are protected from evictions while neighboring counties are not.
The county-to-county patchwork also adds another layer of confusion for many people who are on the brink of eviction or who have already been evicted.
Tenants and landlords are now scrambling to see if the freeze applies to them, and because of the temporary lapse in protection, evictions resumed in some states and cities, meaning that some people who would now be covered under the ban have already been evicted.
Perhaps the most notable obstacle is the fact that the new moratorium will almost certainly face legal challenges.
The Biden administration previously argued that it did not have the jurisdiction to extend the eviction freeze unilaterally, citing a recent decision from the Supreme Court, which ruled that the CDC could not extend the ban past July and that Congressional action was needed.
Three days before the moratorium was set to expire, Biden asked Congress to pass legislation to extend it before leaving for their August recess. Republicans blocked the effort by unanimous consent, and Democratic leaders, frustrated with the president’s last-minute demand that left them with few options, said they did not have enough support for a formal vote.
Biden, for his part, has acknowledged that any freeze that comes from his administration would face this obstacle.
“Any call for [a] moratorium based on the Supreme Court’s recent decision is likely to face obstacles,” he told reporters Tuesday. “I’ve indicated to the CDC, I’d like them to look at other alternatives [other] than the one that is in existence, which the court has declared they’re not going to allow to continue.”
Any legal proceedings, however, will take time, meaning Congress could act before any disputes are resolved. The extended timeframe would also give state and local governments more leeway to distribute the nearly $47 billion in rental aid approved in the last two stimulus packages.
Only $3 billion of the funding has been distributed due to the numerous delays and hurdles municipalities have faced while struggling to create new systems to dole out the much-needed aid.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (CBS News)
Virtually All Emperor Penguins Doomed for Extinction by 2100, Study Finds
The new study comes as the U.S. The Fish and Wildlife Service moves to submit a proposal Wednesday to add the Emperor penguin to its list of threatened species.
Concerns for Emperor Penguins
Nearly all of the world’s emperor penguin colonies may be pushed to the brink of extinction by 2100, according to a study published Tuesday in the journal Global Change Biology.
More specifically, researchers behind the study said 98% of the colonies could be gone in the next 80 years if climate change continues causing sea ice to melt at its current pace. About 70% of colonies could die off by 2050, it added.
That is pretty huge news because Emperor penguins — the world’s largest penguin species —are a vital part of the Antarctic food chain. They prey on krill, squid, and small fish, and provide a source of food for leopard seals and killer whales.
However, the birds are particularly vulnerable to climate change because they depend on sea ice for viral activities like breeding, feeding, and molting, along with resting or seeking refuge from predators.
U.S. Moves To Protect the Species
The new study comes as the U.S. government considers adding the Emperor penguin to its list of threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to build off this new research, along with other data, for its proposal on Wednesday. Once published in the Federal Register, the proposal will be open to a 60-day public comment period.
If the classification is granted, the species would receive protections, including a ban on importations of the birds for commercial purposes.
“These penguins are hard hit by the climate crisis, and the U.S. government is finally recognizing that threat,” Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, told the Associated Press.
“Climate change, a priority challenge for this Administration, impacts a variety of species throughout the world,” said Martha Williams, principal deputy director of the wildlife service. “The decisions made by policymakers today and during the next few decades will determine the fate of the Emperor penguin.”
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The Hill) (AP News)
Florida Breaks Its Record for New Daily COVID-19 Cases and Hospitalizations
The Sunshine State now accounts for 20% of all new COVID-19 cases nationwide.
Florida Becomes COVID Epicenter
Florida reported 10,207 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Sunday, marking its largest single-day count to date. The grim record comes just one day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data showing that the state had counted 21,683 new infections Friday, its highest record of daily cases since the start of the pandemic.
Florida has become the new epicenter of the most recent U.S. outbreaks driven by the delta variant. The state now accounts for one out of every five new cases, and the weekend numbers are highly significant because they surpass previous records that were logged before vaccines were readily available.
Notably, Florida’s vaccination rate is actually the exact same as the nationwide average of 49% fully vaccinated, according to The New York Times tracker. In fact, Florida’s rate is the highest among the top 10 states currently reporting the most COVID cases.
While Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has encouraged Florida residents to get vaccinated, he and the state’s legislature have also made it much harder for local officials to enforce protections to mitigate further spread.
DeSantis Bars Masking in Schools
On the same day that the state reported its highest cases ever, DeSantis signed an executive order banning school districts from requiring students to wear a mask when they go back to school later this month.
The move directly contradicts guidance issued by the CDC last week, which recommended that everyone inside K-12 schools wear a face covering.
DeSantis, for his part, has repeatedly claimed the spikes are part of “seasonal” increases driven by more people being indoors and air-conditioning systems circulating the virus. Still, he argued also Friday that he did not think masks were necessary to prevent children from transmitting COVID in the classroom, where they are inside with air conditioning.
At the same time, last week, Florida reported more than 21,000 infections among children younger than 19.
Florida is not the only state that has banned schools from requiring masks. In fact, many of the states suffering the biggest spikes have done the same, including Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas — which all currently rank among the top 10 states with the highest per capita COVID cases.