The owner of a popular Nova Scotia corn maze and farm who warned patrons about a possible exposure to an employee with COVID-19 says he has since learned the employee lied about being tested.
At a news conference Monday morning, Jim Lorraine, owner of the Riverbreeze Corn Maze, said the deception came to light after Public Health investigated the employee's claim.
Last week, Lorraine took to Facebook to inform patrons of the maze's "Fear Farm" event that a parking lot attendant had tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
"We thought we were doing the right thing," an emotional Lorraine told reporters on Monday.
Lorraine said the employee first sent on email on Nov. 3, stating they had tested positive for COVID-19, and expressing concern that their co-workers may have been exposed.
"This communication prompted a very quick family meeting in our household to discover what the best next steps were going forward and how we should handle this," explained Lorraine.
“While we felt the possibility of transmission to be low due to the safety protocols we had in place and due to the distancing, we still couldn’t guarantee that a customer did not come in contact with the staff member. For that reason we decided to go public with what we knew.”
However, Lorraine said suspicions were raised after Public Health contacted him to try to reach the employee. He said Public Health then notified him the farm had never had any risk of exposure and its investigation was closed.
He said officials also told him they couldn't confirm whether a staff member at the farm had indeed tested positive, due to patient confidentiality.
Lorraine confronted his employee, who eventually wrote in a text that, not only had he not tested positive for COVID-19, he had never actually been tested at all.
"The story was a complete fabrication, made up by the staff member to reasons of which at this time we are not sure," said Lorraine.
While he doesn't regret putting out his own notice about a potential for public exposure, Lorraine said next time he would check with Public Health first.
"Would I do it again?" he asked. "I would reach out to Public Health and ask, 'How quickly do you inform, how quickly does your investigation go through?'"
Lorraine said not having more information about the process followed by Public Health in issuing a public notification of a possible exposure was part of the reason why he chose to notify customers on his own.
A spokesperson with Nova Scotia Health, which traces COVID-19 cases, said once its investigation determines a business should be contacted it does so, "right away."
"We know it can be difficult when people are hearing things about different situations," wrote Senior Advisor for Nova Scotia Health, Carla Adams, in an email to CTV News. "COVID-19 has caused a lot of stress and fear. It's understandable. However, please know that Public Health takes this work very seriously and containing and managing this disease – and protecting the health of Nova Scotians – is our priority and focus. We will share information when it's helpful to Nova Scotians and our investigations."
In addition, a spokesperson for Nova Scotia's Department of Health and Wellness had this to say in reaction to the incident:
"The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a lot of anxiety for people and businesses. It is disappointing to hear that anxiety in this instance was heightened unnecessarily. We strongly encourage people to think about the impact false claims have on the public and businesses. This is a time for people to be truthful and forthcoming about exposure to COVID-19 and follow the public health measures. It is an offence under the Health Protection Act to provide false or misleading information to a Medical Officer, Public Health Nurse or Public Health Inspector."
Lorraine said the incident has caused a lot of grief for his staff members, some of whom lost income because they were asked not to report to their regular jobs as a precaution.
"We have staff members who went through a lot of mental anguish over this, who were chastised at work -- even though public health had cleared us all to go back to our regular duties -- some of them left work crying at their regular jobs because of the way they were treated," he said.
Lorraine said his family even received threats on social media after he posted the warning on Facebook.
"I want to apologize to our customers for everything that transpired," Lorraine said. "I felt I was acting in the appropriate manner, based on the information I was provided while Public Health conducted their investigation."
"As an employer," he added, "I am not allowed to ask for verification of COVID tests and never in my wildest dreams did I think someone would make this sort of thing up."
Lorraine said the employee in question will never work at or visit the farm again.
He also had a message for the person who sent threats to his family.
"I want you to consider your actions when you do things like this … in the midst of a global pandemic, sharing information is key to keeping this thing beat down and to keep people safe," he said. "By using these threats and intimidation methods, all you're really doing is eroding public safety, public health and public confidence."