Veteran Island volunteer finds himself a victim of COVID-19 online frenzy

Norm Morrell

Social media vigilantism often gets things wrong

GORE BAY – There are few more familiar faces than that of Island auctioneer Norm Morrell, but the former Island educator’s face is rarely seen while the snow is on the ground these days as, like many Canadians, he spends much of the winter months holed up in a secluded Florida refuge. These days Mr. Morrell is secluded in self-isolation at home as he waits out the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr. Morrell had a personal early warning system in place that gave him a heads up that it was time to head home. “My one son Craig is the director of cardiac research at the University of Rochester, New York and my son Larry (infection control practitioner at Huron Perth Healthcare Alliance) is the head of Infection Control and Epidemiology in Perth,” he said when contacted by phone at his home last Friday. “When I got the calls from my sons saying ‘get home’ I listened,” he said. This despite the fact that his winter escape is a gated community in a remote part of the state and a long way away from the epicentres of the outbreak in Florida.

Normally Mr. Morrell would not have returned home until April 14, but when the phone call came three weeks ago, the couple jumped in the car the day following the call and made an epic journey home. The trip took less than two days with he and his wife taking shifts driving and napping—avoiding any unnecessary interactions along the way.

“Before I left I talked to the folks I know from the Island that live in the same complex down at the coffee shop we go to and told them they had better head home as well,” he said, noting that they followed suit within a day or so. “It was funny, by the time I left the next day, our insurer had sent out a bulletin that due to the coronavirus we were not going to be insured after 10 days.” Two to four days after the Morrells left the rest of the Island expats followed suit.

His sons had noted that while the virus had yet to turn up in his neighbourhood and that “it might never get in there,” if it did, with roughly 1,200 homes packed in any safety would evaporate quickly.

Crossing the border there was no call for a mandatory isolation. “The nice young guy at the border asked me where I had been, whether I was in contact with anyone who had the virus, whether we had any fever or cough. We had plenty of time to chat because there wasn’t a lot of traffic at that time. He said that this thing was getting serious.” Mr. Morrell was advised to wash his hands, keep social distance, but at that time the call had yet to go out calling for even a voluntary quarantine, let alone a mandatory two-week stint of self-isolation.

“When I got home and after we got things up and running at the house, I took one of the vehicles to the gas station to fill the tank,” he said. Cognizant of the rising concerns, he took the precaution of calling ahead and writing out a cheque for $50 worth of gas. “I took the window down two inches and passed the cheque through the window to the person pumping gas. She wasn’t wearing any gloves or anything.”

Mr. Morrell returned home.

“The next thing I knew I got a call from Sudbury asking me ‘what are you doing?’,” he said. It seems that it was going around on the internet that he was out and about in the community. “Then more calls came in, telling me that people were claiming I was in the grocery store with my wife.” Students he had not seen since 1967 were contacting him.

Mr. Morrell found himself playing an email and messenger game of whack-a-mole trying to clamp down on the misinformation. Like a deranged version of the children’s game of telephone the story kept growing with each retelling. “Soon the story was going around that (a couple of other people who had travelled abroad for the winter) were with me.”

“I would send out a sharp note to people who were passing on the misinformation,” he said, often following it up with the message ‘sorry for being so abrupt.’ “But some of them just kept right on going even after I said to them ‘stop telling lies’.”

Many of the people he contacted directly deleted their posts, he noted. “But they didn’t say anything to me about it.” But he also found a great number of people who know him personally who didn’t buy into the rumours and who alerted him to the misinformation being spread about him online and in the community.

Many of his Island friends have been very supportive and helpful, noted Mr. Morrell. “Bordie Noble dropped off a four-wheeler for me so I can at least drive up and down the lane,” he said. Others have called to offer assistance with deliveries of groceries and other items.

“Island folk are wonderful people,” said Mr. Morrell. “There are a few folks out there that might not be thinking things through or checking on what they are passing on and that’s too bad.”

In the meantime, although his non-mandatory self-isolation period has passed, Mr. Morrell said he was still planning to keep a good distance as much as possible.

As for those spreading untrue tales online, even though the argument could be made that libelous statements would hurt his business financially, Mr. Morrell said that in light of the heightened emotions of scared people, he was “just going to lay it down for now.”

Asked if he had a message to add to his story, Mr. Morrell responded “just be kind. Nobody knows for sure how long this is going to last, they only know it is going to be going on for some time; as my son Craig said ‘this is not going away quick’,” he said. “So try to be kind and support each other, that’s who we really are.”