Social media users called for the alleged perpetrator to be “named and shamed,” and for her to possibly charged with “domestic terrorism”:
Although “weird news” stories of the sort typically circulated with news articles attached, the claim about the Pennsylvania woman and Gerrity’s touched on a perfect storm of COVID-19 fears. One element involved her alleged coughing — framed either as intentionally spreading the virus during a pandemic, or otherwise striking fear into fellow shoppers for the presumed purposes of amusement or trolling.
Another fear had to do with potential food shortages from ongoing supply chain disruptions caused by the global coronavirus pandemic, which greatly reduced access to household supplies and food — as the supermarket workforce was spread ever thinner by the illness. It seemed safe to say most Americans had one or more disruptions to their grocery and staples acquisition routine, and more shoppers still were forced out to shop due to shortages at major online retailers. (Delivery services like AmazonFresh, Shipt, and Instacart had vanishingly low availability because of the same concerns, as well.)
Needless to say, Americans had a whole host of angry reactions to the story’s spread, as well as disdain for anyone who might affect so many people with such a craven gesture at a time of mass uncertainty. People objected to:
- Causing fear among innocent people just trying to find groceries, possibly for no reason;
- Needlessly scaring supermarket employees, who have been deemed “essential” workers and are faced with potential infection daily;
- The specter of loss of resources for a small supermarket;
- Waste of food supplies and household goods, which in many areas remained in short supply.
Some tweets provided a name and a location for the supermarket — a small Pennsylvania chain known as Gerrity’s Supermarkets. One added a March 25 2020 tweet from the company:
Over on Facebook, Gerrity’s co-owner Joe Fasula shared the same images of empty produce shelves and aisles. Fasula said the Gerrity’s in question was in Hanover Township, and described the alleged cougher as “a chronic problem in the community.”
In that post, Fasula said that Gerrity’s estimated the value of food tossed out “to be well over $35,000,” and voiced fears the alleged incident would cause the company to endure an increase in insurance rates the following year. Fasula added that Gerrity’s immediately contacted police and the incident was escalated to the district attorney’s office:
Today was a very challenging day.
At 2:20 PM today, I got a call from our Hanover Township store. The manager informed me that a ￼woman, who the police know to be a chronic problem in the community, came in to the store and proceeded to purposely cough on our fresh produce, and a small section of our bakery, meat case and grocery.￼
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. Working closely with the Hanover Township health inspector, we identified every area that she was in, we disposed of the product and thoroughly cleaned and disinfected everything.
Although we have not yet quantified the total loss,￼ we estimate the value 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. 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.￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼
Our incredible team did the best they could to get the woman out of the store as fast as possible. ￼The police were contacted immediately and the case has been escalated to the District Attorney’s Office.￼￼ They have assured me that they will be aggressively pursuing numerous charges. In addition, while we do not believe the woman is truly infected, they will make every effort to see that she is tested.
Information about the incident was widely reported and primarily sourced from Fasula’s social media statement on Gerrity’s Facebook pages and on Twitter. TMZ, Fox News, Newsweek, the New York Post, CNN, and several local outlets reported the claims, TMZ’s story began as follows:
CORONAVIRUS WOMAN COUGHS ON GROCERY PRODUCE … $35k In Food Wasted
A vile woman purposely coughed all over a grocery store’s fresh produce, resulting in a huge waste of food and rotten day for its employees … and the authorities are pursuing charges.
A Post headline blared:
Woman coughs on $35K of goods at Pennsylvania grocery store in ‘very twisted prank’
Scranton’s Times-Tribune interviewed Fasula by phone on the evening of March 25 2020. In that initial video, Fasula said that he had yet to see the surveillance footage reviewed after the incident was reported, and that his account was secondhand:
Gerrity’s responded by working with a health inspector to identify via video surveillance every area the woman approached, throw out each item she contacted and clean and disinfect the store, Fasula said in a phone interview [on March 25 2020]. He had not yet seen the video for himself but had information relayed to him by the store manager on the scene.
“You can see her. She comes in the door,” Fasula said in a phone interview. “She coughs in her hand, smiles, looks around, walks right over and bends into the produce case and coughs.”
“Obviously, when I got the news, I was literally speechless,” he continued. “I felt bad because the manager called me in a panic and said, ‘What do I do?’ I stood there stunned for a moment trying to come up with a response, because what do you do?”
On March 23 2020, two days prior to the Gerrity’s “coughing” incident, Fasula talked to WNEP about the difficulties facing the chain during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fasula took the unusual step of discouraging unnecessary visits to the store and described worries about keeping stores safe:
Gerrity’s Supermarkets is asking something of its customers that seems to go against everything grocery stores are all about but, as co-owner Joe Fasula will tell you, these are not ordinary times.
“Never in my life did I ever think I’d ask customers this, but we do want you to come when you need to and when you do come, please come by yourself. As long as you don’t have children who can’t be left at home, please come by yourself,” Fasula said.
Grocery stores are considered life-sustaining businesses by the state and are allowed to stay open during the coronavirus outbreak … Gerrity’s is learning from other stores around the world that have responded to the pandemic. Grocery stores in Italy have been limiting customers for several weeks.
“We’re trying to stay ahead; it’s moving at the speed of light. It’s so hard to think about the next shoe to drop. We’re always trying to find out what else we can be doing to keep the environment safe,” Fasula added.
Just before midnight on March 25 2020, the Hanover Township Police Department issued a statement about the incident at Gerrity’s on Facebook. Although Fasula mentioned the case being “escalated” to the DA’s office, the police said that the woman in the incident was remanded to a hospital for evaluation:
The Hanover Township Police Department is investigating an incident at 2280 Sans Souci Pakway, Gerrity’s Supermarket, for a female customer who intentionally contaminated produce/meat/merchandise for sale.
The suspect has been identified and is being evaluated at a local hospital for a mental health evaluation. Criminal charges will be filed.
The Hanover Township Police Department was assisted by the Hanover Township Health Officer, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Luzerne County District Attorney’s Office and the Pennsylvania State Police.
A viral news story concerned an incident during which a woman allegedly coughed on $35,000 worth of food items at a Gerrity’s Supermarket in the Scranton area on March 25 2020. Most of the information being reported nationally came from an emotional plea by co-owner Fasula on Facebook, and it heightened frustration about infection control and food supply chain issues even outside the Scranton area. Fasula described the woman as a “chronic problem in the community,” and said the case was being handled by the District Attorney. According to police, the customer was “identified and [given a] mental health evaluation.” Police did not mention charges, nor did they substantiate the claim that at least $35,000 of merchandise had been contaminated.
Update on March 26 2020, 10:43am: Police announced they have arrested the woman and charged her with multiple felonies.