The passenger was 28-year-old James Potok, an aspiring musician from Ontario, who says he decided to falsely claim he had the illness in order to create a viral video to post on his social media channels.
“Well, I had my camera with me. I was looking to get a viral video,” Potok told Global News on Tuesday, noting that, as an artist, “Any publicity for myself is good publicity.”
According to a statement from the Peel Regional Police, at approximately 12:59 p.m., Potok “stood up and announced that he had been to China and ha[d] the coronavirus.” The announcement was then shared with the flight crew, who decided to return the flight to Toronto’s Pearson Airport.
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A representative for WestJet told PEOPLE that the flight was diverted due to “an unruly guest,” and that “out of an abundance of caution our crew followed all protocols for infectious disease on board, including sequestering an individual who made an unfounded claim regarding coronavirus.”
Potok explained his side of the story to CBC News on Tuesday: “I said: ‘I just returned from a flight from Hunan province.’ I might have said: ‘This is the capital for coronavirus.’ And then I said: ‘I don’t feel too well.’ And I looked around. I saw the reception of the people. They didn’t seem too happy about it. I don’t blame them. And I stopped recording and I sat back down in my chair.”
The current outbreak of the coronavirus originated in Wuhan, which is in Hubei province.
Upon landing and being checked for the virus, Potok was charged with Mischief and Breach of Recognizance. According to the Peel Regional Police, he will appear at the Ontario Court of Justice on Monday, March 9, 2020 for his hearing. He has no known attorney to speak on his behalf at this time.
Despite any publicity he may have gained, Potok’s prank had major repercussions for many people — including more than 600 guests who were impacted by the flight cancellations and delays.
WestJet told PEOPLE that two flights were cancelled due to the incident, and extra segment flights had to be scheduled. Many of the people on board those flights were headed to Montego Bay for vacation.
Now, it seems, Potok regrets his actions, telling CBC that he is extremely sorry for what he did. “I am completely remorseful to everybody that I damaged their plans. To WestJet, I am apologetic, very sorry for the situation at hand,” he said. “Me being an entertainer, there are things to say and things not to say. This was probably something, in retrospect, I should not have said.”
He continued: “Coronavirus is not something to joke about. People don’t take it lightly.”
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As of Wednesday, there are 24,324 cases of coronavirus in China and 490 have died from the respiratory illness. The number of Chinese deaths has already exceeded that of the 2002-3 SARS outbreak, when there were 349 deaths, however the mortality rate — about 10 percent — was much higher than this coronavirus, which is around 2 percent.
A significant number of people are recovering from this coronavirus, as well. Chinese officials said that 262 people left the hospital on Tuesday. In the U.S., the man who had the first confirmed case of coronavirus also went home.