Niagara Sobeys employees to be assessed for COVID-19 after store owner tests positive

A Niagara regional councillor says all employees at a Fonthill, Ont. Sobeys who want to be tested for COVID-19 will be able to after the store’s owner, a town councillor, contracted the virus.

The company had asked for testing to take place, joining a chorus of voices including Pelham, Ont. Mayor Marvin Junkin.

Junkin, who was himself tested Thursday, is currently in self-isolation along with his wife after news broke the owner of the store, Coun. Ron Kore, has COVID-19.

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

Just a few weeks before his death, Ciolfi attended a council meeting on March 23, along with both the mayor and Kore, who sat about eight feet away from him 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.

Niagara Regional Police launched a “COVID related” investigation into community concerns in Pelham Thursday, but on Friday said they’d looked into the issue and determined “criminal inquiry is not an appropriate course of action at this time.”

Sobeys, public health officials and Ontario’s Ministry of Labour are continuing to investigate.

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

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

Pelham Ont. councillor and Sobeys franchisee Ron Kore tested positive for COVID-19, according to the grocery store chain. (Town of Pelham)

While it can’t be known who got what from whom, whether the virus was even spread at the meeting, or if Kore 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 the mayor.

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

Failure by community leader to isolate prompts COVID-19 probes by police and health officials says Pelham Mayor Marvin Junkin. 8:10

Both Junkin and regional councillor Diana Huson said they’ve heard from shoppers and employees who have 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 the mayor.

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.

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 temporarily taken over store

In a statement emailed to CBC, a Sobeys spokesperson said it has launched an internal investigation and temporarily removed Kore as the store’s operator until that probe is complete.

The store was closed Thursday for a deep cleaning and “rigorous cleaning and sanitization protocols” continue to be followed, wrote Jacquelin Weatherbee.

The company has contacted public health to let them know employees want to be tested and officials have told them the steps necessary to request a test, she added.

“Sobeys is not able to administer these tests; however we have advocated that the employees would like to be tested,” ,” Weatherbee wrote. “We have provided this information to store employees.”

Health unit won’t say if it issued isolation order

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 to isolate for 14 days and to call their hotline.

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