HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — Right around the time the World Health Organization was declaring the novel coronavirus a full-blown pandemic, Cody Lee Pfister walked into a Walmart in Missouri and delivered his own public service announcement — of the twisted variety.
Mr. Pfister, 26, looked directly into a camera and asked, “Who’s scared of coronavirus?” As if to answer his own question, he proceeded to lick a row of deodorants on a store shelf. For six seconds, he awkwardly slid backward, his tongue running from one brand of deodorant to the next.
He appeared amused. And satisfied enough to post the video online. Horror ensued. Grossed-out viewers from as close as his small hometown, Warrenton, Mo., to Ireland and the Netherlands reported the video prank to the police. And soon Mr. Pfister was facing charges of making a terrorist threat.
“Immature. Tasteless. Youthful indiscretion. Yes, it was a very foolish thing to do,” acknowledged Mr. Pfister’s lawyer, Patrick J. Coyne. “But he is not a bad person. He made a bad choice.”
Mr. Pfister joins a growing parade of mischief-makers, rapscallions and rogues who have been accused of carrying out all manner of pranks and tomfoolery as fear, panic and a virulent virus tear through the country. It’s March Madness meets April Fool’s Day.
From licking objects to coughing on people to willfully violating the six-feet rule, coronavirus agitators have publicly acted out. Some of their antics were mindless and silly, others costly and downright dangerous.
The woman accused of marching into a Pennsylvania grocery store and intentionally coughing and spitting her way through the produce section? Arrested and facing four felonies.
The California influencer who posted a video of himself licking his toilet? Sick in bed with the coronavirus, he later claimed, though a hoax was suspected and his Twitter account was suspended.
The unnamed person who attended a “coronavirus party” of young adults in their 20s in Kentucky? Tested positive for Covid-19. “This is one that makes me mad,” Gov. Andy Beshear said at a news conference last week. “We should forgive that person but no more of these, anywhere, statewide, ever, for any reason.”
And who can forget the seven words of one Brady Sluder, beamed from a packed Florida beach at the peak of spring break as local authorities begged students to practice social distancing: “If I get corona, I get corona.”
Of course, the coronavirus crisis is not the first time there has been a collision between public health, policy and pranks.
Just last summer, America collectively gagged during the viral internet ice cream challenge as attention chasers gleefully licked ice cream and placed the cartons back on supermarket shelves — videotaped, of course, for the masses. Before long, markets were emptying whole freezers of ice cream and police officers were making arrests. One Texas man’s penchant for online fame and vanilla ice cream cost him 30 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.
For Mr. Pfister, the deodorant-licking prank turned into a serious police investigation. He was charged by the prosecuting attorney’s office in Warren County with making a terrorist threat in the second degree, a felony. His lawyer, Mr. Coyne, said the date of the prank makes all the difference. The police’s probable cause statement said the incident happened on March 11. Mr. Coyne said it happened the day before.
“Public conduct that was immature on March 10 looks completely differently through the lens of today. On March 10, when the video was taken, Covid-19 was not declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization,” he said in a statement. “Everything has changed at warp speed, but that should not work retroactively and convert a tasteless and impulsive act into a criminal terrorist threat.”
Mr. Pfister is not the only one facing charges as law enforcement officials are scrambling to arrest scofflaws and, in some cases, charge those who intentionally spread the virus.
Police said George Falcone, 50, coughed on a food store employee in Manalapan, N.J., and told the woman he had the coronavirus. He was charged with multiple offenses including making a terroristic threat.
Last Wednesday afternoon, Margaret Cirko, 35, walked into a Gerrity’s Supermarket in Hanover Township, Pa., and started coughing on cases of fresh produce, baked goods and meat, the authorities said. Over and over, she was said to declare, “I have coronavirus, you are all going to get sick,” before attempting to shoplift a 12-pack of Coors Light.
The food all had to be tossed. The loss: about $35,000.
A “twisted prank” was what the store co-owner Joe Fasula called Ms. Cirko’s actions. Police called it a felony. Charges include two felony counts of terrorist threats and one count of threats to use a “biological agent.”
“It’s really disheartening to think that someone would do this to cause havoc or to be funny or spiteful at a time like this when food is so important for the community and for comfort,” said Mr. Fasula, 44, who runs the nine-store chain with his mother, Joyce Fasula. “This makes me sick to my stomach.”