Last week, Gerrity's Supermarket posted an update on its website, detailing what customers could expect in its nine stores during the ongoing coronavirus crisis. In addition to opening its stores early on Tuesday mornings for shoppers who are 60 and over, the Pennsylvania chain said that all stores would start closing early for additional cleaning, and that its shelves were slowly filling back up with items that had been sold out for a few days.
"We are still working feverishly to keep the shelves stocked and keep everything clean," Gerrity's co-owner Joe Fasula wrote.
Unfortunately for Fasula, it just took one woman to undo pretty much all of that. By the time 35-year-old Margaret Cirko was ejected from the Hanover Township store on Wednesday afternoon, the entire fresh produce section had allegedly been ruined, as had a section of the meat case and some items from the bakery. According to a Fasula, an estimated $35,000 worth of food had to be tossed out and destroyed because of what he called "a very twisted prank"
"Today was a very challenging day," he wrote on Facebook, an opening sentence that might be the understatement of this hellish year so far. "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."
Fasula said that the city health inspector had to be called in, and everything that the woman could've possibly come into contact with was removed from the store. Those aisle were then cleaned and disinfected by more than a dozen Gerrity's workers—employees who have undoubtedly already been working extremely hard under stressful conditions.
"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," Fasula wrote.
On Wednesday night, the Hanover Township Police Department released a statement confirming that Margaret Cirko had been arrested for intentionally contaminating the grocery items. In addition to "intentionally coughing and spitting saliva/bile" on products in several aisles of the store, officers say that Cirko tried to steal a 12-pack of beer as she was being ordered off the property. She was charged with two felony counts of terrorist threats, one felony count of threats to use a biological agent, one felony count of criminal mischief, and a pair of misdemeanors for criminal attempt to commit retail theft and disorderly conduct. Her bail has been set at $50,000.
Earlier this week, Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen sent a memo to other members of the U.S. Department of Justice, to U.S. attorneys, and to law enforcement agencies in which he reportedly stated that any attempt to "to use COVID-19 as a weapon against Americans will not be tolerated." In addition, anyone who tries to infect others with coronavirus could be found guilty of violating federal terrorism laws.
Cirko isn't the first person to face that particular set of felony charges due to coronavirus-related stupidity. On Tuesday, New Jersey state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced that he was filing terroristic threat charges against George Falcone, who allegedly coughed on a Wegman's supermarket worker before laughing and telling her that he had coronavirus. (Falcone has denied both coughing on the woman and mentioning the illness.)
Back in Pennsylvania, Joe Fasula is concerned not just about the empty shelves, but about the effect that $35.000 worth of contaminated food might have on his insurance rates next year.
"The only silver lining to this travesty is that it gave us the unfortunate opportunity to test our protocols and demonstrate how seriously we take your safety," he wrote. "One thing is for sure, we will have the cleanest display and freshest produce anywhere in northeast [Pennsylvania]."