CITY HALL – Trying to stop a shopper who doesn’t have personal protection from entering a supermarket, a worker at that store tells him to put on a mask. In response, the man coughs, sneezes and spits on the worker.
In today’s nervous atmosphere, 24th Ward Alderman Bret Narayan thought, it could happen. So he wrote a bill that would make it a city ordinance violation to intentionally cough, sneeze or spit on an essential worker. Such acts by someone with COVID-19 could spread the coronavirus.
But when Narayan presented the bill to the Aldermanic Public Safety Committee in a teleconference meeting Tuesday, all seven aldermen on the committee spoke against it, as did a representative for a statewide advocacy group.
Narayan didn’t even bother asking for a vote on whether to recommend passage by the full Board of Aldermen.
“I think I would like to hold the bill for the moment,” he said.
The bill would prohibit individuals from intentionally coughing, sneezing, or spitting on essential workers during the COVID-19 crisis and imposing criminal penalties. The penalty would be a fine of $250 to $500 or jail time of up to 90 days. The law would expire on July 1, 2021.
The definition of “essential workers” is basically the same as workers in the essential businesses designated in the city’s stay-at-home orders. Those include employees of grocery stores, health care facilities, restaurants and bars.
“We were simply looking to prohibit people from intentionally putting essential workers carrying out their duties at risk.” Narayan said. “The city will not tolerate that type of behavior.”
Narayan said that laws already exist to deal with the problem but that they didn’t exactly fit. Police could charge people with terroristic threats, a felony. But that’s too heavy-handed, he said.
“It just gives additional options,” he said.
Twenty-Second Ward Alderman Jeffrey Boyd said that spitting would be considered a violation of the misdemeanor fourth degree assault law. “It’s just a disgusting act, period, and people should be charged with that,” he said.
Fourteenth Ward Alderwoman Carol Howard asked who would decide intent. “I don’t see the point in having this,” she said.
Fifth Ward Alderwoman Tammika Hubbard also questioned why it was necessary. “It appears to be redundant and a waste of time when we already have a law in this regard,” she said.
It’s possible to punish people for spreading the coronavirus, said 21st Ward Alderman John Collins-Muhammad. But that doesn’t make a community safe, he said.
“This is not good legislation. I think it makes our legislative body a little silly.”
And 26th Ward Alderwoman Shameem Clark-Hubbard said coughing and sneezing were uncontrollable acts. “How would you be able to prove the intent?” she asked.
The one outside speaker, Molly Pearson, the organizer for the Missouri HIV Justice Coalition, said the criminalization of HIV in the last 30 years in Missouri showed that punitive measures fail as public health interventions.
Intent is especially difficult to prove, Pearson said. Those who are already vulnerable would be more likely for prosecution, she said. Someone suffering from something as benign as seasonal allergies could be charged, she noted.