According to the Hanover Township Police Department, Lea Piazza wouldn't stop breathing on the New Jersey officers as they were processing her paperwork.
Ordinarily, that would be a mere annoyance. And that's just what it was until the woman told them she had the coronavirus, police said.
When the 28-year-old New Jersey woman crashed her car last week, she grew belligerent and refused to answer questions from officers who believed she might be intoxicated, according to NJ.com.
Back at the police department's headquarters, she ignored their requests to cover her mouth.
"Oh, by the way," Piazza allegedly said after coughing on one officer. "I have the coronavirus and now so do you."
The remark naturally alarmed the department, which contacted health officials and placed the three officers who had dealt with Piazza under self-quarantine after the Thursday incident.
But it was a false alarm, police said Tuesday.
While Piazza claimed that her boyfriend had contracted the novel coronavirus and was hospitalized for treatment in New York, that was "100 percent false," Hanover Police Capt. Dave White told NJ.com. The man in question said that he'd been on only one date with her and that his hospital stay was for an unrelated tooth issue.
Piazza, who couldn't be located for comment but reportedly called police on Friday and apologized for her outburst, was charged with DWI, careless driving, reckless driving, refusal to take a breath test and false public alarm.
But law enforcement officers across the country worry that at some point, it could be more than just a scare.
Indeed, as American life continues to shift in response to the pandemic, some police departments nationwide have adopted a more flexible approach to enforcing the law to protect themselves and the community.
In Philadelphia, commanders were notified Tuesday that they will be delaying arrests for nonviolent crimes. An internal memo from Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw emphasized social distancing among the officers and discretion in instances involving drug offenses, theft and prostitution, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"If an officer believes that releasing the offender would pose a threat to public safety, the officer will notify a supervisor, who will review the totality of the circumstances and utilize discretion, in the interest of public safety, in determining the appropriate course of action," Outlaw wrote in the memo.
Many departments have urged citizens to report crimes online or over the phone rather than in person.
And others are rethinking what crimes require the presence of an officer. The Portland Police Bureau in Oregon announced last week that it was reducing the number of calls that officers would physically respond to, specifically for some types of non-life-threatening crimes, in hopes of preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
"We're talking about lower-level stuff," Portland Police Bureau spokesman Kevin Allen told the Oregonian. "The bigger stuff, of course we're going to respond. . . . We're just going to be looking for any opportunity we can to use the phone to do our job."
Similar calls for reduced in-person responses have come in recent days from authorities in Denver; Lansing, Michigan; and Syracuse, New York. While the enforcement of crimes that aren't in progress is not being prioritized as much during the health crisis, Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen told the Denver Post that the department would prioritize calls if staffing is severely impacted by covid-19.
"We're not turtling up into shells and hiding," Pazen said to the newspaper. "Our ability to fight crime, our ability to prevent crime in the first place, that has not changed."
Other police departments, however, have continued to respond in person to all crimes. In San Jose, California, authorities have recommended social distancing but acknowledged that staying six feet away from people, recommended by federal health experts, was often not feasible for making arrests.
"Our men and women cannot telecommute. They will rise to the adversity," Police Chief Eddie Garcia said to the San Jose Mercury News. "We can't avoid contact. We don't have that luxury. We can limit contact, but we can't eliminate it. We have to operate under realistic expectations."
Reports of police officers testing positive for coronavirus or going into self-quarantine after coming in contact with someone exposed to the virus have become more frequent. In the past week alone, officers in cities such as Los Angeles, Cleveland, Memphis and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, have tested positive for the virus or gone into self-quarantine because of exposure to covid-19.