Bad actors have defied stay-at-home orders and are threatening to spread the coronavirus by coughing or spitting on essential workers.
Under new direction from Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, these actions could be punishable by law under terrorism charges.
In a March 24 memo, Rosen wrote that "Because coronavirus appears to meet the statutory definition of a "biological agent" under 18 U.S.C § 178(1), such acts could implicate the Nation's terrorism-related statues."
After charging similar offenders with lesser crimes, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewall charged a man named George Falcone with making terroristic threats after he allegedly coughed on a Wegmans employee and claimed he had coronavirus. If convicted, Falcone could face 10 years in prison and a $150,000 fine.
Since bringing up charges against Falcone, Grewall's office has charged more than 30 others with making terroristic threats.
"You need to use whatever levers you have to make sure people abide by those orders from your governors and that they don't, in this midst of this crisis, take advantage of their fellow citizens by engaging in criminal conduct," Grewall said in an interview.
Similar charges have been issued in states including Texas, Florida and Missouri, but not all jurisdictions are using the full power of Rosen's memo. Similar cases have seen charges of breach of peace, assault and other misdemeanors.
"While on the one hand, there is no question that a serious pandemic such as we are experiencing can have an enormous effect on the national security of a country, it's really also important to understand the differences between a naturally occurring disease and, you know, an act of war," said Wendy Parmet, director of the Center for Health Policy and Law at Northeastern University.
Violent extremist groups have also been cited as plotting to spread the coronavirus. A February intelligence brief by the Federal Protective Service warned that "White Racially Motivated Violent Extremists have recently commented on the coronavirus stating that it is an 'OBLIGATION' to spread it should any of them contract the virus."
William Braniff, director of National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, said the directive "may have a deterrent effect against those individuals who might be doing it as a sort of a counterculture response, some kind of joke taken too far, but for those who are really immersed in the kind of extremist propaganda that's pushing for this, I don't know that it's that effective of a deterrent."