Last Wednesday, April 22, employees of the Sobeys supermarket location in Fonthill contacted the Voice to say that franchisee Ron Kore, who is also a Pelham Town Councillor, had 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.
The employees, all of whom requested to remain unnamed for fear of losing their jobs, told the newspaper that Sobeys corporate representatives arrived in Fonthill on Wednesday morning and were meeting with staff to deliver the news.
Sobeys spokesperson Jacquelin Weatherbee initially would only confirm that “an employee” at the Fonthill location had tested positive, but the following day she identified the individual as Kore to the CBC.
The Voice repeatedly asked for comment from Kore as the story unfolded throughout the week, receiving no acknowledgement of the requests.
After four days of silence, on Sunday Kore released a statement to several media outlets confirming the diagnosis, saying that he had been tested on April 17 and received news of the positive test result last Monday, April 20.
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, was 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.
In early February, Niagara Public Health began warning of COVID-19 symptoms the public should be alert to. By mid-March, a runny nose and other symptoms of the common cold were included on the Region’s website.
Health authorities at all levels of government, in Canada and around the world, urged anyone feeling ill or exhibiting symptoms to stay at home and self-isolate until they were recovered.
While store staff say that Kore’s respiratory symptoms were clear earlier, they were self-evident on 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, Region of Niagara Public Health contacted those who were present in council chambers during the March 23 meeting. The Voice learned that at least two others in the room that evening subsequently tested positive for the virus. On Thursday, April 23, CAO David Cribbs confirmed to the CBC that two non-elected officials inside Town Hall had also tested positive.
April 6 meeting
The next council meeting after March 23 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.
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 the April 22 issue of the newspaper, accompanying a story about the switch to electronic meetings.
Mayor Junkin then emailed Kore on April 7, copying all of council and certain senior staff, to express his frustration regarding Kore’s insistence on entering Town Hall.
“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 last Wednesday 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.
The email was also provided to another media outlet—the St. Catharines Standard—and was done so several days before the news of Kore’s COVID-19 test result was published by the Voice. Reporters working for Torstar, the parent company for all Niagara dailies, declined to tell the Voice when specifically they received their copy. The Voice has learned that as early as the week of April 13, a Torstar reporter reached out to at least one member of Pelham council regarding the email, then did not follow up once Kore’s test result was reported.
In its reporting of the Sobeys story, the St. Catharines Standard did, however, include comment from Kore about the email, apparently obtained from him before the events of last week, in which Kore described Junkin’s message as “mean-spirited.”
On Wednesday, April 22, 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 Jacquelin Weatherbee said that the employee who tested positive (whom she later identified as Kore) would be permitted to return to work 14 days after the initial test result, and after receiving “medical, professional approval” that the individual was symptom-free.
Weatherbee said that Sobeys staff would 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, April 23, 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."
Late in the week and into the weekend, Mayor Junkin and Pelham Regional Councillor Diana Huson made repeated requests of Public Health to offer testing to all Fonthill Sobeys employees regardless of whether they were symptomatic. A conference call on Sunday, April 26, between them, Regional Chair Jim Bradley, Acting Medical Officer of Health Dr. Mustafa Hirji, and others, ended the way it started. There would be no exception made to the testing criteria currently in place.
Asked whether the department makes routine or spot checks of businesses to ensure compliance with sanitation directives, Maxwell said, "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."
Pelham Fire Chief and Emergency Control Group head Bob Lymburner told the newspaper that the municipality lacked jurisdiction to force the store to close for cleaning.
"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.
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
"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, April 23, 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, 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.
Stronger response, Kore suspended
Following intense negative reaction on social media to revelations of Kore’s conduct and to Sobeys perceived lack of remedial action, and increasing interest in the story by regional and then national news media, the company announced midday Thursday, April 23, that the store would be closed after all and subject to a “deep-cleaning.” The store closed mid-afternoon for the cleaning and reopened as usual on Friday morning.
Jacquelin Weatherbee, Sobeys communications officer, told the Voice Thursday afternoon that the company had launched an internal investigation, "into the events and what’s occurred," and that they were cooperating with local authorities. Weatherbee would not cite which authorities these were.
"We are thankful that customers and employees have brought information forward," she said.
Weatherbee reiterated Sobeys' position that by local public health directives, the store was not required to close, nor were employees who were in contact with Kore required to self-isolate for 14 days.
She asserted that it was Kore who made the decision to close overnight for cleaning.
By Friday, the corporate tone had changed. Sobeys announced that Kore has been removed from his job pending an investigation."We have launched an internal investigation and are taking this matter very seriously," said Weatherbee in a company statement.
We have launched an internal investigation and are taking this matter very seriously
"We are working in cooperation with all authorities. Today, we made the decision to temporarily remove the franchisee operator from the Fonthill location. Sobeys will be temporarily operating the store until the investigation is complete."
Sobeys operates a mixure of corporate-managed and franchise stores. Kore has run the Fonthill franchise for a decade.
"Sobeys was made aware of customer and employee concerns relating to the Fonthill Sobeys franchised store earlier this week," said Weatherbee. "We take every single complaint and customer question we receive very seriously."
"We are in the process of following-up with the inquires we received to understand people’s concerns and reassure them that everything has been done to ensure the Sobeys Fonthill location is safe for its customers and employees. Our customers’ trust means everything to us. We regret the stress the last few days has placed on employees and the Fonthill community.”
On Saturday, April 25, Ontario Premier Doug Ford weighed in, when asked at his daily COVID-19 media briefing about Kore’s continued attendance, both at council and his store, while exhibiting respiratory illness symptoms.
“It’s terrible what happened,” said Ford. “First of all, my heart prayers go out to [late Councillor Mike Ciolfi’s] family. People make mistakes, but folks, please, we’ve come so far.”
Ford then turned Saturday’s answer into criticism of a group of “anti-shutdown” protesters outside of Queen’s Park in Toronto, before CTV reporter Nick Dixon followed up with a question about what defenses people have against authority figures like Kore—a manager of a retail outlet and an elected official—who appear to flout public health advisories.“Call your public health, and if you really want to shame them, call the local media,” Ford said. “It’s just being irresponsible. If you have symptoms, it’s like walking around with a loaded gun in your hand.”
If you have symptoms, it’s like walking around with a loaded gun in your hand
After declining requests for comment through the week, on Sunday, April 26, Kore emailed a statement to a number of media outlets to state his case. In it, Kore asserted that he had followed Niagara Region Public Health guidelines regarding COVID-19.
Kore said that he was informed by Public Health on Monday, April 13, that he had been in the presence of an infected individual. Kore did not specify when this encounter occurred. The Voice has previously reported that those in the room with Councillor Mike Ciolfi during council’s March 23 meeting were contacted by Public Health as a result of Ciolfi’s subsequent positive test result.
When he requested to be tested for the virus, Kore said that he was told by a Public Health nurse that it was unnecessary. He then went to his doctor.
“[The doctor] did make arrangements for me to be tested for the virus,” said Kore. “My test was scheduled for April 17th and the only time I left self-quarantine since the 13th was to get the test administered.”
Three days later, on April 20, Kore said that he was informed by Public Health that he had tested positive for COVID-19. Yet Kore also said that Public Health immediately cleared him to return to work.
“That day I was informed by a nurse at Niagara Region Public Health (‘NRPH’) that I was no longer infectious,” Kore said, “and she had: ‘verified with our medical officer of health at Niagara Region Public Health Dr. Hirji that you can resume your normal activities of work and do not need to self-isolate.’”
Kore said that out of an abundance of caution and notwithstanding NRPH’s recommendations, “I have remained in self-quarantine and will do so for 14 days since testing positive.”
This self-isolation was already a requirement mandated by Sobeys, according to their spokesperson.“As a 63-year-old individual with a history of heart disease, I would never take a risk with my health, the health of my wife, employees or colleagues at Town Hall.”
As a 63-year-old individual with a history of heart disease, I would never take a risk with my health, the health of my wife, employees or colleagues at Town Hall
Kore criticized the Town of Pelham’s handling of his diagnosis.
“The Town’s response on this matter has been reckless and irresponsible. Further speculation is not warranted and would be completely inappropriate.” Kore said that he would have no further comment.
Asked to respond, Mayor Junkin extended his best wishes to Kore, and said, "Town of Pelham staff and Mr. Kore’s colleagues are happy to hear that his health is improving. We at the Town are still waiting for Mr. Kore to reach out to us on a personal level."
CAO David Cribbs pushed back at Kore's characterization of the municipality's response.
"The Town is unaware of any of its statements being irresponsible," said Cribbs. "The Town has only made statements that attempt to respond to questions from the public and that convey its best information to encourage healthy and safe practices for all members of the community, including elected officials."
"It would appear that Councillor Kore is either recovered or largely recovered from his recent illness and his return to work will be welcomed," Cribbs added.
Kore did not attend council's April 27 meeting by teleconference, nor did he respond to a Voice request for comment ahead of the meeting. The meeting was postponed by a week due to Councillor Mike Ciolfi’s passing on April 13.
Niagara Region Public Health Communications Consultant Kerri Stoakley confirmed that Public Health told Kore that he did not have to remain in quarantine past April 20, the day that he received his test result.
This was due to the health department's determination that the illness had already run its course, and consequently Kore's most infectious period was already behind him, occurring while he continued working and was not in self-isolation, possibly for several weeks."The current COVID-19 real time PCR test remains positive for many weeks after one fully resolves from infection," said Stoakley.
The current COVID-19 real time PCR test remains positive for many weeks after one fully resolves from infection
Stoakley would not say what date Kore was presumed to have been infected.
"We can confirm that he was a contact of another case, as Mr. Kore has written. But we can’t comment on details about that other case, nor did we tell Mr. Kore a presumed date of exposure (which would not be stated to Mr. Kore in order to protect the identity of the other case)."
On Monday, April 27, the Voice was told by a Sobeys employee that corporate human resources staff had begun interviewing Fonthill employees on site as part of the company’s internal investigation.
With contributions by Samuel Piccolo, Don Rickers, Warren Mason, Dave Burket, and John Chick.