COVID-19: US woman jailed for deliberately coughing on shopper

"I think I'll get really close to you and cough on you then, how's that?"
"I think I'll get really close to you and cough on you then, how's that?" Photo credit: Facebook / Heather Reed Sprague

A Florida woman who deliberately coughed on a shopper last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic has been sentenced to 30 days in jail.

Debra Hunter was arrested last June after she was recorded deliberately coughing on a customer during an argument with employees inside a Pier 1 retail store.

On Thursday (local time), a judge in Jacksonville ordered Hunter to pay a US$500 fine (NZ$710), serve six months probation, and participate in a mental health evaluation.

She was also ordered to cover the costs of the victim's COVID-19 test, The New York Times reports.

The victim, Heather Sprague, was recording Hunter having a heated encounter with store employees. When Hunter saw Sprague filming, she made a rude gesture, marched up, and coughed on her.

"I think I'll get really close to you and cough on you then, how's that?" Hunter is heard saying in the video. "Assh*le."

The video went viral after being posted by Sprague on Facebook.

"I did not speak, react, or engage. Simply stood to document the behavior," Sprague wrote.

Sprague told the judge she spent days searching for a place where she and her family could be tested for COVID-19. 

Her tests ended up being negative, but the encounter left her fearful.

"I worried for the health and safety of my children, and wondered how in the world I could possibly isolate to protect them - in a household of 12 - if I had been intentionally infected."

In a three-page letter to the judge, Hunter admitted her wrongdoing and called the incident "highly regrettable".

"My daughter was alarmed when she noticed a stranger recording the three of us with her phone," she wrote.

"Admittedly I was immediately infuriated and demanded this customer to stop filming my kids. In the heat of the moment, I over-reacted in an overprotective manner which ultimately led to my retaliation on this stranger, the victim.

"And that highly regrettable, split-second, knee-jerk reaction has cost my family dearly."

Hunter included another 23 pages that documented harassing texts, emails, letters, and social media posts targeting her family.

"Despicable, vile skank. I hope your whole family gets COVID and suffers immensely, then dies," one reaction read.

She concluded: "I often wonder what it would be like if every one of us, as the flawed human beings we are, had their worst moments reduced to a short video for all the world to see and judge."