Peel police have arrested a man for mischief after he reportedly told a plane full of people bound for Jamaica that he had coronavirus, forcing it to return to Toronto.
The WestJet flight, headed to Montego Bay, departed Toronto around 10 a.m. Monday and was about halfway there when the man reportedly stood up and told crew and passengers he had coronavirus.
The pilot radioed back and returned the flight to Toronto Pearson Airport. The plane landed at around 2:10 p.m. and the man was assessed by medical staff and deemed symptom free. He was then arrested.
James Potok, 28, from Vaughan has since been charged with mischief and breach of recognizance. He will appear in court on March 9 in Brampton.
Potok’s parents confirmed to CityNews he is an up and coming musician who also goes by Potok Philippe.
Potok tells CityNews he meant it all to be a prank and “it was good for publicity.”
“It would be something else if I said hey guys I have a bomb strapped to me … I have a weapon on me … people blew it out of proportion. To me it was simply a joke,” he says.
“About mid-way through the flight I stood up, pulled my video camera out – I was going to post it to Instagram, send it to 6ixbuzz so it goes viral,” he explained. “I looked around, I said ‘can I get everybody’s attention please’ and … I followed up by saying, word-for-word, I said ‘I just came back from Hunan province, the capital of the coronavirus…I’m not feeling too well. Thank you,’” adding that nobody laughed and about 15 minutes later all the airline staff were wearing masks and put him in a mask and gloves as well.
When the plane started turning back, he says he began to second guess his actions.
Note: The epicentre of the novel coronavirus is the city of Wuhan not Hunan province.
Potok says he travels to Jamaica four to five times a year and was on his way to shoot a music video. He admits he’s made various proclamations on planes several other times and no one has reacted, but he realizes now that joking about the virus was not a wise decision.
“I’m very, very sorry for my ignorance and not understanding that its an epidemic … that people hear the word and … it’s become synonymous with threats,” he said, reiterating several times that he never actually said he had the virus.
“I thought it would spark a reaction … I did not think what I was doing would be considered illegal [or] warrant that type of response,” he said.
Potok adds that he was booed by passengers and they were very irate with him as he was escorted off the flight.
“In retrospect it probably wasn’t the best thing to do,” he said.
Listen to the full interview with Potok below:
WestJet apologized to the 243 passengers affected by “this unfortunate situation.” They added the plane crew followed all protocols for infectious disease on board, including sequestering the man.
Peel police say they believe the incident was a prank and WestJet said the claim the man has coronavirus was “unfounded.”
Two flights were cancelled due to the incident on Monday and WestJet said they would be adding an extra flight on Tuesday, both to and from Montego Bay, for those affected.