Franchisee and Pelham Town Councillor Ron Kore continued to come into store, attend council, despite respiratory symptoms
Editor's note: Readers new to this story may wish instead to see the recap version, which compiles all aspects of our coverage into a timeline. Find the recap here.
[UPDATED: Sobeys confirms Kore as testing positive]
[UPDATED: Sobeys "temporarily removes" Kore from store]
Multiple employees of the Sobeys supermarket location in Fonthill have come forward to say that franchisee Ron Kore, who is also a Pelham Town Councillor, has tested positive for COVID-19, and that for a period of nearly four weeks he continued to come into work while exhibiting symptoms of a respiratory illness.
Kore has not responded to requests for comment.
The employees, all of whom requested to remain unnamed for fear of losing their jobs, told the Voice that Sobeys corporate representatives arrived in Fonthill on Wednesday morning, April 22, and were meeting with staff to deliver the news.
Sobeys spokesperson Jacqueline Weatherbee confirmed Wednesday afternoon that an employee at the Fonthill location had tested positive, but on privacy grounds would not confirm the individual’s identity, only that the test result had come in this past Monday, April 20.
However, speaking to the CBC on Thursday, April 23, Weatherbee did in fact identify Kore.
"It has now been made quite public that our Fonthill Sobeys franchisee is currently at home in self-isolation following a positive COVID-19 test result," Weatherbee told CBC Hamilton.
Also on Thursday, Sobeys updated its list of stores where employees have tested positive for COVID-19, asserting that the last work day for the infected employee in Fonthill was April 14.
We wish them a speedy recovery, as we do with everyone else dealing with this terrible virus right now.
Store staff speaking to the Voice expressed frustration that Kore had continued to come into work in recent weeks while obviously ill. They also couldn’t understand why the store was not being closed for a so-called “deep cleaning.”
Weatherbee asserted that the Fonthill location, like all Sobeys stores in Canada, is in compliance with directives handed down by local health authorities, and that closure was not necessary.
“Our employees are cleaning the store—every two hours our stores are cleaned, high-touch surfaces are disinfected, like pin-pads, door handles, refrigerator handles, and [checkout] belts. Our bathrooms are being cleaned every 15 minutes. And we’re also sanitizing every grocery cart before it’s handed to a customer.”
One long-time employee said that they were experiencing significant stress.
“I’m even wondering if I should be tested. Could I have used the same phone as Ron? Could I be carrier? So many questions on something that could have been avoided had our boss done his due diligence and stayed home the minute he got sick.”
So many questions on something that could have been avoided had our boss done his due diligence and stayed home the minute he got sick.
The source and the other staff speaking to the Voice asserted that Kore dismissed his illness as a minor cold.
However, Kore’s respiratory symptoms were clear as far back as March 23, when he attended a Pelham Town Council meeting inside Town Hall. The Voice has learned that some staff present in the room were alarmed that Kore would attend the meeting while ill, yet they did not speak out at the time.
At the meeting, which lasted nearly four hours, Kore was one of three councillors in attendance, along with Councillor Marianne Stewart and Councillor Mike Ciolfi. Councillors Wink, Hildebrandt, and Haun attended by teleconference.
Kore and Ciolfi sat approximately eight feet apart on the same side of the room. Within days, Ciolfi developed increasingly debilitating symptoms of illness, at one point so severe that he was virtually unable to speak.
Ciolfi tested positive for COVID-19 during the week of April 6. He died overnight Sunday, April 12. A cause of death has not been announced.
As a result of Ciolfi’s positive test result, Region of Niagara Health contacted those who were present in council chambers during the March 23 meeting. The Voice has learned that at least two others in the room that evening subsequently tested positive for the virus, results that CAO David Cribbs would not confirm to the paper.
However, on Thursday, April 23, CBC Hamilton reported Cribbs confirming that two non-elected officials inside Town Hall had also tested positive.
April 6 meeting
The next council meeting was scheduled for Monday, April 6, at which time all councillors and staff were to attend by teleconference, with only Mayor Marvin Junkin and Town Clerk Nancy Bozzato in council chambers.
That afternoon, however, the Voice was informed that Kore was insistent on attending the meeting in person, to the alarm of Town staff.
Kore did not respond to Voice requests for comment that day, nor to a later follow- up. He did not attend the meeting in person or by teleconference.
Reached the next day, Tuesday, April 7, Mayor Junkin confirmed that he was adamant that Kore not be physically present, and he was prepared to cancel the meeting if Kore had shown up at Town Hall.
“When there was a suitable technical alternative that allowed him to do his job as a councillor,” Junkin said, “the same as every other member of council, there was no reason for him to personally attend.”
In an unusual move, CAO David Cribbs contacted the Voice the day after the meeting to report that Councillor Kore had accused him of improper communication with the newspaper.
“I have been shown an email written yesterday by you to Councillor Kore in which you ask him to comment on why he wished to attend yesterday’s council meeting in person, rather than by electronic means,” Cribbs wrote in an email to Voice publisher Dave Burket. “I have been accused of leaking this story to your publication.”
Cribbs asked whether Burket could inform Kore that this was not the case.
“I was happy to do so,” said Burket. “That [request] was a first for me. In fact, multiple individuals were concerned about Kore’s persistence in entering the building, despite evidently being ill.”
“I have informed Councillor Kore that you and I communicated by phone yesterday afternoon,” wrote Cribbs, “wherein we discussed logistics for a Voice photographer to be granted access to Town Hall to take pictures of the technology set-up being used for the electronic council meeting.”
The photos taken on April 6 ran in this week’s issue of the newspaper, accompanying a story about the switch to electronic meetings.
Apparently prompted by Kore’s irritation that his insistence on attending in person was widely known, Mayor Junkin emailed Kore on April 7, copying all of council and certain senior staff. The Voice has obtained a copy of the email.
“It has come to my attention that you were upset at not being allowed, as a councillor, to participate in last night’s meeting in the council chamber,” Junkin wrote.
“I, for one, was very relieved when I.T. made it possible for our council to hold these type of meetings [by teleconference]. Here are my reasons. I am 67 years old and spent 45-plus years as a dairy farmer. That is 45-plus years breathing in hay dust and / or grain dust. I think it is safe to say that my lungs are what is currently being called compromised. If I were to be infected with the COVID-19 virus, it could very easily be fatal for me….With your job forcing you to interact with so many people on a daily basis, like it or not you must be viewed as a high-risk person to be around. Is it just a coincidence that Mike [Ciolfi] got sick after our last council meeting, when he was sitting on the same side of the room as you? Maybe, maybe not. We will never know. I will not take that chance. A big healthy guy like Mike has been sicker than a dog for over a week, with fever, aches and pains. Why should any of us take that risk, when the technology is available to completely eliminate it.”
Why should any of us take that risk, when the technology is available to completely eliminate it.
Asked on Wednesday, April 22, to confirm the authenticity of the email, Junkin replied that he was, “disappointed that a confidential document meant only for council and senior management” came into the newspaper’s possession. In fact, all communication among elected and government officials is subject to public scrutiny, including through Freedom of Information requests.
Junkin said that he hadn’t heard any news from either Kore or Sobeys regarding his COVID-19 status.
“If he did in fact test positive, I’m disappointed that he hasn’t contacted myself or the CAO so that we could have alerted Town staff, who may have had close proximity with him at past meetings,” said Junkin. “If he has tested positive, the Town would have liked to know about it.”
Store and staff
Sobeys spokesperson Jacqueline Weatherbee said that the employee who tested positive (whom she later identified as Kore) will be permitted to return to work 14 days after the initial test result, and after receiving “medical, professional approval” that the individual is symptom-free.
Weatherbee said that Sobeys staff will not be tested.
“Public Health hasn’t given us any indication that we should be testing employees, but if their position changes, we will comply, as we have in every other instance across the country.”
Asked about Sobeys' assertions regarding employee testing, and whether it was appropriate to keep the store open, Niagara Region Public Health spokesperson Meredith Maxwell told the Voice on Thursday that the department had no specific comment.
"Due to privacy, Public Health doesn’t comment on specific COVID-19 cases or situations," said Maxwell. "As part of our follow-up of confirmed cases, we would follow-up with any contacts with significant risk, as well as any premises that need to take measures to mitigate risk."
As part of our follow-up of confirmed cases, we would follow-up with any contacts with significant risk, as well as any premises that need to take measures to mitigate risk
Asked whether the department makes routine or spot checks of businesses to ensure compliance with sanitation directives, Maxwell answered, "Public Health routinely inspects all food premises—restaurants, bars, coffee shops, food trucks, convenience stores, and grocery stores, amongst others— to ensure measures are in place to prevent infections, including food-borne infections as well as other infections including respiratory infections such as influenza and COVID-19."
After this story was first posted, readers contacted the paper directly and commented on social media that the Town of Pelham should take action to shut the Fonthill store down and require it to be cleaned.
Asked to respond, Pelham Fire Chief and Emergency Control Group head Bob Lymburner told the newspaper on Thursday that the municipality lacked jurisdiction.
"As emergency management, even though we’re under a declared state of emergency it doesn't give us any special authority to shut things down," said Lymburner.
"We have the ability to shut down municipal programs and infrastructure, but in the private, business world we have no authority at all."
Early Thursday afternoon, Niagara Regional Police spokesperson Phil Gavin confirmed that an NRPS investigation was underway, but would not disclose specifics.
"We are aware of the community concerns in relation to this matter," said Gavin. "We have commenced an investigation. As such it would not be appropriate to comment further."
By Friday, April 24, however, the NRPS had closed its inquiry.
"Based on a preliminary review, it has been determined that a criminal inquiry is not an appropriate course of action at this time," read an NRPS statement.
The police service never publicly disclosed who or what they were investigating. Answering a follow-up question from the Voice Friday afternoon, Gavin initially seemed to imply that the investigation was conducted on behalf of Niagara Public Health.
"The NRPS remains committed to working with Public Health, as required, in any matter where they require the assistance of law enforcement," he added.
However, Gavin later emailed the Voice to request a clarification, saying that he did not intend to state that the NRPS was working at the request of Public Health.
"We commenced our own investigation independent of Niagara Public Health over apparent community concerns," said Gavin, late Friday night.
Media organizations including the St. Catharines Standard, CHCH, and the CBC have reported that Kore has turned down all opportunities to comment to date.
With reporting by Samuel Piccolo.
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Updated Thursday, April 23, 12:40 PM, with Sobeys COVID-19 website link, comment from Niagara Public Health, and Pelham's Fire Chief.
Updated Thursday, April 23, 1:15 PM, with NRP comment.
Updated Thursday, April 23, 11 PM, quoting CBC Hamilton reporting that Kore did, in fact, test positive for COVID-19; added image of Kore wiping his nose taken from Town recording of March 23 council meeting.
Updated Saturday, April 25, 11 PM, with comment from CAO David Cribbs to CBC Hamilton, and the Niagara Police decision not to pursue a criminal inquiry.