A man from Texas has been jailed for a COVID-19 hoax he posted to social media.
Christopher Charles Perez, aka Christopher Robbins, was sentenced to 15 months in prison for "threatening" messages he posted to Facebook. In the messages, he claimed he had paid someone infected with COVID-19 to lick items in grocery stores in the San Antonio area, in an attempt to stop people from visiting those stores.
After digging into the case, the Federal Bureau of Investigation found that the threat was not credible: Perez had not paid anyone to lick grocery store items. Yet by claiming he had, he broke laws against spreading false information and hoaxes related to biological weapons.
“Those who would threaten to use COVID-19 as a weapon against others will be held accountable for their actions, even if the threat was a hoax,” FBI San Antonio Division Special Agent in Charge Christopher Combs said in a statement.
“Perez’s actions were knowingly designed to spread fear and panic and today’s sentencing illustrates the seriousness of this crime."
As well as prison, Perez has been ordered to pay a $1,000 fine for the hoax.
“Trying to scare people with the threat of spreading dangerous diseases is no joking matter,” U.S. Attorney Ashley C. Hoff said, in a statement from the United States Attorney's Office. “This office takes seriously threats to harm the community and will prosecute them to the full extent of the law.”
Somewhat bizarrely, Perez is not the first to fall foul of the "no licking or threatening to lick items in grocery store" laws – with one incident involving ice cream even occurring before the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the early stages of the pandemic, a man in Missouri was charged with making a terrorist threat after he filmed himself licking a selection of items in a Walmart, and posting the video publicly under the caption "I'm a nasty mother f----r".
He was charged with carrying out a terrorist threat in the second degree by the Warren County Prosecuting Attorney's Office, for an act which "recklessly disregards the risk of causing the evacuation, quarantine or closure of any portion of a building, infrastructure etc and knowingly... Communicates an express or implied threat to cause an incident or condition involving danger to life".