A Monmouth County grocery shopper is facing criminal charges after a tense exchange ended with him intentionally coughing on a Wegmans employee and then claiming he had the coronavirus, Gov. Phil Murphy said Tuesday.

Murphy also said that after acting out on Sunday in Manalapan, the man then refused to give his personal information to police for about 40 minutes.

George Falcone, 50, of Freehold, was charged Tuesday with third-degree terroristic threats, fourth-degree obstructing administration of law and a disorderly persons offense of harassment.

Murphy also branded him one of the "knuckleheads" in the state who are not cooperating with the public health emergency.

The incident happened around 6:30 p.m. March 22 at the store along Route 9.

State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said the worker was concerned that Falcone was standing too close to her as she had an open display of prepared foods, so she asked that he step back as she covered the food.

George Falcone (NJ Attorney General's Office)
George Falcone (NJ Attorney General's Office)

Instead, police said Falcone stepped forward to within 3 feet of the woman, leaned toward her and purposely coughed. Police said Falcone then laughed and said he was infected with the coronavirus, while telling two other employees that "they are lucky to have jobs."

Township police already have been working to help provide security at the store during the COVID-19 pandemic and so a detective assigned to the store handled the situation.

Summonses were issued Tuesday requiring Falcone to appear in court at a later date.

“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,” Grewal said.

“Exploiting people’s fears and creating panic during a pandemic emergency is reprehensible. In times like these, we need to find ways to pull together as a community instead of committing acts that further divide us,” Monmouth County Prosecutor Chris Gramiccioni said in a written statement.

"The health and safety of our customers and employees is our top priority. We have a variety of security measures that we utilize on a daily basis and for special situations like this," a Wegmans spokesperson said to New Jersey 101.5 Tuesday. "We have security coverage in all of our stores and we are continuously monitoring this situation and making adjustments as necessary."

The incident was brought to light the same day that another grocery chain announced new efforts to protect the health of "front line" associates.

Plexiglass shields are going up at Acme Supermarkets, including the 73 stores in New Jersey, to help protect workers amid COVID-19.

The shields are going up at check-stands, customer service desks and pharmacies to provide a barrier between the cashier and the customer, an Acme spokesperson said.

Acme stores also are working to designate checkout line areas to improve social distancing, by marking off 6-foot distances and asking customers to bag their own groceries if using reusable bags.

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