Niagara police have launched a “COVID related” investigation after a Pelham town councillor who tested positive for the virus was seen sniffling and wiping his nose during a recent meeting.
A few weeks later another councillor, Mike Ciolfi who was sitting just feet from his ailing colleague at the meeting, died suddenly. His cause of death has not been disclosed.
Const. Phil Gavin declined to provide any further details about what exactly police are looking into, saying the only that the service is “aware of community concerns” and must “balance privacy and medical information.”
The investigation comes after questions were raised about Ward 2 councillor Ron Kore and a report he continued to work despite respiratory symptoms, as first revealed by The Voice of Pelham newspaper.
Kore, whose LinkedIn account lists as the franchise owner of the Sobeys in Fonthill, Ont., has tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to a spokesperson for the grocery store chain.
Reached by phone at his home Thursday, the councillor and former Pelham citizen of the year said he wouldn’t be making any comments.
“There is another side to the story,” Kore said, adding he did plan to speak out at some point, but it would be a “long while” and only after “everything settles down.”
Ten days have passed since Ciolfi, an outgoing and popular member of the town’s council, died at age 51.
His cause of death has not been released publicly.
Reached by phone Thursday the Ciolfi family declined to comment. Niagara Region Public Health also refused to confirm any personal details of people who have tested positive for COVID-19, citing privacy.
Video shows councillor wiping his nose
On March 23, just three weeks before the councillor’s death, Ciolfi sat about eight feet away from Kore during a council meeting. Just one other councillor attended in person, along with a handful of staff members and the mayor as the council took steps to avoid the spread of the virus.
“Please keep in mind that our actions affect more than just ourselves,” said Mayor Marvin Junkin while opening the meeting. “Please follow the advice on social distancing and staying at home.”
The town’s archived video of the meeting shows Kore wiping his face and appears to show him coughing.
“The disheartening fact of it was … that Mr. Kore was constantly using a Kleenex,” said the mayor Thursday.
“He obviously had a runny nose and you could hear him in the background coughing or there was someone coughing.”
Junkin said after the meeting some staff expressed concern that the councillor had attended in person despite the fact he was “obviously suffering, at the very least, cold symptoms.”
Neither he nor the town’s CAO David Cribbs has been contacted by Kore to discuss his health as of Thursday.
“I would have thought he would have got ahold of either [of us] … to at least inform the town as to his health status,” said Junkin.
Cribbs was also at the meeting and said he too noticed Kore seemed to be sick, pointing to the video.
“If you choose to watch long enough you will see councillor Kore using a lot of Kleenex etcetera … with a box sat in front of him. That’s both factually evident and can be independently verified.”
2 staff members tested positive
Cribbs said two other Pelham staff members have since tested positive for COVID-19. He would not say whether or not they attended the March 23 council meeting, but did say they were not elected officials.
The town has been taking steps to keep staff safe since the pandemic began, including cleaning its buildings three times a day, said the CAO. After Ciolfi’s death they took an extra step to ease anxiety among employees.
“Last week after the very unfortunate demise of councillor Ciolfi we did elect to do a deep clean of two of our facilities,” said Cribbs, who added he didn’t know if the councillor had the virus, but people took the “universally-popular” councillor’s death hard.
“You just really sense anxiety in the organization amongst the staff. It was known he had been present sometime prior in the facility,” he explained.
Cribbs said he helped craft a statement about Kore and COVID-19 concerns that was shared on the town’s website, which references the police investigation, but declined to go into more detail.
“I suspect they’re reacting to media reports and trying to investigate whether any contravention has occurred” he said. When asked if he meant contraventions around COVID-19 laws, he responded “One would assume so.”
The town is cooperating with police, Cribbs added.
It’s not clear exactly when Kore tested positive for the coronavirus.
Sobeys was told about the positive test on April 20 and immediately began an internal investigation, according to Jacquelin Weatherbee, vice-president of communications and corporate affairs.
She declined to say when the test actually took place, pointing to privacy laws.
“It has now been made quite public that our Foothill Sobeys franchisee is currently at home in self-isolation following a positive COVID-19 test result,” said Weatherbee, who noted corporate policy dictates anyone who tests positive for the virus must quarantine for 14 days.
“We’re in constant contact with him and wish him a very speedy and quick recovery.”
The store is now dealing with customer and employee concerns “based on him being in the store,” said Weatherbee.
“Public health did not indicate we should close the store for cleaning or that there was a need for any of our employees to be tested.”
Still, out of an abundance of caution, the store was closed Thursday afternoon for a deep cleaning and any staff members who wish to undergo testing will be able to time off to do that, said Weatherbee.
The store is set to re-open Friday morning.
Following the March 23 council meeting Mayor Junkin said the town’s IT department went to great lengths to make sure its next meeting on April 6 could occur virtually using video conferencing platform Zoom.