Niagara Sobeys employees to be tested after owner develops COVID-19

The employees of a Niagara-region grocery store have been offered testing for the coronavirus after the owner, who is also a town councillor, contracted the virus.

Investigation launched Thursday no longer deemed 'appropriate,' police say

Employees of the Sobeys in Fonthill, Ont., will be tested for the coronavirus after the owner, who is also a local politician, developed COVID-19. (Jonathan Castell/CBC)

The employees of a Niagara-region grocery store have been offered testing for the coronavirus after the owner, who is also a town councillor, contracted the virus.

Ron Kore has also been temporarily removed as the operator of the Fonthill, Ont., Sobeys, according to a spokesperson for the parent company, which has launched an internal investigation.

The store was closed Thursday for a deep cleaning and "rigorous cleaning and sanitization protocols" continue to be followed, Sobeys spokesperson Jacquelin Weatherbee said Friday. 

Public health officials and Ontario's Ministry of Labour are also investigating. 

Niagara Regional Police had launched a "COVID-related" investigation over community concerns in Pelham on Thursday, but on Friday said they'd determined a "criminal inquiry is not an appropriate course of action." They did not offer further details. 

A chorus of voices had called for testing at the Sobeys, including that of Pelham Mayor Marvin Junkin, who went into self-isolation along with his wife after news broke that Kore has COVID-19. 

Pelham Ont., councillor and Sobeys franchisee Ron Kore tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the grocery store chain. (Town of Pelham)

Another councillor, Mike Ciolfi, suddenly died on April 13 after testing positive for the coronavirus. His cause of death has not been publicly disclosed.

Ciolfi attended a council meeting on March 23, along with both the mayor and Kore, who sat about eight feet away and could be seen on video of the meeting coughing and wiping his nose.

There is no confirmation Kore had contracted COVID-19 at that time. Sobeys said it was made aware he had tested positive on April 20, but would not say when the test took place, citing privacy.

Two other town staff members have tested positive for the virus, according to Junkin.

Reached by phone Thursday, Kore said there was "another side to the story," but declined to comment further.

While it can't be known who got what from whom, whether the virus was even spread at the meeting, or if the councillor simply had a cold at that time, the situation has shaken the community causing both grief and anger.

"It is disheartening that a member of the community and especially a prominent businessman, such as himself wouldn't have been a little more careful and a little more considerate of the people around him," said Junkin.

"Surely by that time he would have heard all the warnings being put out by the health departments."

The mayor and regional councillor Diana Huson said they've heard from shoppers and employees who expressed concerns about Kore being in the store while exhibiting symptoms and the possibility of workers being exposed then bringing the virus home with them.

"It seems to have been an incident that went on for some time," explained Junkin.

Huson said the Sobeys is one of only two grocery stores that serve the town, noting she shopped there herself just three weeks ago.

On Friday she was told by public health officials that testing would be made available to any employees worried about having come into contact with Kore.

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Given that shopping for essentials is one of the few outings people are permitted during the pandemic, she said the testing will give residents peace of mind.

It's possible no one was exposed, but the councillor said it's important to prepare people for a worst-case scenario too.

"If there is a broader exposure there and we can do testing to either confirm or eliminate that, I think people in our community would like the peace of mind," she said.

Sobeys has told local heath officials that the employees would like to be tested, according to Weatherbee. 

There are 427 cases of COVID-19 in the Niagara Region as of noon Friday, according to statistics from public health. Thirty-seven people infected with the virus have died.

However, the region does not provide a breakdown of cases in each of the region's 12 municipalities so it's unclear how many of those cases are in Pelham.

Meredith Maxwell, manager of communications for public health, would not comment on whether any Sobeys workers had tested positive for the virus.

When the health unit learns of a positive case they work to trace who that person came in contact with and follow up with anyone at risk of exposure, she said.

Niagara public health would not confirm whether public health officials ever ordered Kore to self-isolate.

"We do not comment on specific cases," stated Maxwell.

Niagara public health's advice to anyone with symptoms is to isolate for 14 days and to call their hotline.

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