A flight headed to Jamaica on Monday was rerouted back to Toronto after a man falsely claimed that he had recently visited China, where the recent coronavirus outbreak originated.

(Washington Post illustration; James Potok; iStock) © Washington Post illustration; James Potok; iStock (Washington Post illustration; James Potok; iStock)

James Potok, a 28-year-old aspiring rapper from Vaughan, Ontario, stood up on a WestJet flight from Toronto to Montego Bay and told passengers he had just returned from Hunan province, about 300 miles from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the new coronavirus strain.

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The flight, which had 243 passengers aboard, was diverted back to Toronto about two hours after taking off. When it landed, Potok was escorted off, wearing a blue face mask and disposable gloves. 

“That was a good one,” one passenger said as Potok deplaned. “We could have been in the sun.”

Potok, whose stage name is Potok Philippe, filmed himself making the announcement in hopes of getting publicity online. His phone, on which his video of the offending announcement is saved, is being held by police.

“It’s something that is a hot topic right now. Everybody is talking about coronavirus,” Potok told The Washington Post when asked why he did it.

The rapper said he warned the people sitting in his row that he was going to make “somewhat of a statement” before he carried out the stunt. Potok said he told passengers shortly after that it was a joke. 

Potok said that about 10 minutes later, flight attendants wearing masks and gloves came to move him away from other passengers. He was instructed to put on gloves and a mask as well.

Once quarantined, Potok said, he realized he’d made a mistake and was sympathetic to people on the flight, who seemed to be getting “antsy” as they wondered what was going on.

“It seems as though my actions ruined the flight and vacation for almost 250 people,” he said.

Local law enforcement and EMS personnel met the WestJet flight when it reached Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. Potok was escorted off the plane and medically examined for symptoms of coronavirus, which had been confirmed in more than 24,000 cases and 492 deaths in China as of Wednesday morning. Potok, who has never been to China, did not have the virus.

“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,” WestJet officials said in a statement. WestJet added a flight the following day to accommodate passengers who were affected by the publicity stunt.

China has confirmed human-to-human transmission of a new SARS-like coronavirus linked to an outbreak in Wuhan. With the number of cases soaring and spreading to countries beyond China, the World Health Organization has declared an international public health emergency.

(Pictured) People wearing masks, attend a vigil for Chinese doctor Li Wenliang, in Hong Kong, on Feb. 7. The death of a young doctor who was reprimanded for warning about China's new virus triggered an outpouring of praise for him and fury that communist authorities put politics above public safety. 

A light installation reading 'strike' stands before striking members of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA) and other activists at the Hospital Authority building in Hong Kong on Feb. 7, calling for the government to close its border with mainland China to contain the new coronavirus epidemic. Hong Kong on Feb. 7 said it will deploy an army of volunteers to bolster plans to forcibly quarantine all arrivals from mainland China, warning that anyone caught breaching the new rules faces up to six months prison.

The cruise ship Anthem of the Seas is docked at the Cape Liberty Cruise Port on Feb. 7, in Bayonne, New Jersey. Passengers were screened, as a precaution, for coronavirus.

The third person in the UK to test positive for Coronavirus (2019 Novel Coronavirus) was moved from Brighton to London where Professor Chris Whitty, England's Chief Medical Officer, said the patient is currently being treated in the infectious diseases centre. Believed to have been diagnosed in Brighton, the person had been traveling in Asia. (Image taken on Feb. 7). 

Members of anti-coronavirus team spray chemical into vehicles on a road in Thai Nguyen province, Vietnam on Feb. 7. 

A buddhist monk wearing a face mask to protect himself from a new virus at a skytrain station in Bangkok, Thailand, on Feb. 7. The coronavirus outbreak in China has thrown Thailand’s and other Asian countries’ travel industry into chaos, threatening billions in losses as millions of would-be travelers are staying home.

People, who entered the building, are being checked with thermal cameras and disinfectant applied to their hands at the African Union headquarters during the 33rd African Union Heads of State Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Feb. 7. 

The booth of Qingdao Simpassic Import and Export Co, Ltd. from China at the Ambiente fair is closed on Feb. 7. In a letter to trade fair visitors and customers, the company informs them that it has cancelled its trip because of the novel coronavirus. Frankfurt's 'Ambiente' is considered the world's leading trade fair for consumer goods for living, eating, drinking, cooking and giving. 

Commuters wear face masks to protect themselves from new virus at the skytrain station in Bangkok, Thailand, on Feb. 7.

A photo of the late ophthalmologist Li Wenliang is seen with flower bouquets in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on Feb. 7. A Chinese doctor who was punished after raising the alarm about China's new coronavirus died from the pathogen on Feb. 7, sparking an outpouring of grief and anger over a worsening crisis that has now killed more than 630 people. 

Medical staff in protective clothing run next to an ambulance as they prepare to carry a passenger diagnosed with coronavirus to hospital from the Diamond Princess cruise ship as it remains docked at Daikoku Pier where it is being resupplied and newly diagnosed coronavirus cases taken for treatment as it remains in quarantine after a number of the 3,700 people on board were confirmed to have coronavirus, on Feb. 7 in Yokohama, Japan.

School children wear surgical face masks as they attend an assembly at a school in Bhaktapur, Nepal, on Feb. 7.

A worker checks the temperature of a passenger arriving into Hong Kong International Airport with an infrared thermometer in Hong Kong, China, on Feb. 7.

Couples wearing protective face masks attend a mass wedding ceremony organised in Gapyeong, South Korea, on Feb. 7.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen speaks about the coronavirus situation in Taiwan, during a news conference in Taipei, Taiwan, on Feb. 7.

A worker makes protective face masks at the garment company in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Feb. 7.

A plane en route to Canadian Forces Base Trenton, carrying Canadians evacuated from China due to the outbreak of novel coronavirus, arrives to refuel at Vancouver International Airport in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, on Feb. 6.

A health worker checks the conditions of a migrant worker in Suining city, China on Feb. 6.

An ambulance carries a coronavirus victim from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, under quarantine and docked at Daikoku Pier on Feb. 6 in Japan. 20 passengers are confirmed to be infected with coronavirus as Japanese authorities continue screening people on board.

China's ambassador to Britain Liu Xiaoming takes questions from members of the media at the Chinese Embassy in London on Feb. 6 during a press conference relating to the coronavirus outbreak.

Empty shelves are seen at a shop as locals buy disinfectants and tissue paper in huge amount during the coronavirus outbreak, in Hong Kong, on Feb. 6.

Passengers wearing medical masks walk through the international arrivals terminal of I Gusti Ngurah Rai airport in Bali, Indonesia on Feb. 4, following an outbreak of the new coronavirus in China. 

Employees of the Red Cross demonstrate their protective clothing and temperature gauges at Airport Vienna on Feb. 6 in Schwechat, Austria.

Passengers report to medical officers to undergo temperature checks as a part of precautionary measures before they board a cruise at the Colombo Port in Colombo, Sri Lanka on Feb. 6.

Employees inspect disposable face masks on the production line of the Yokoi Co. Ltd. factory on Feb. 6 in Nagoya, Japan. Yokoi, one of major mask manufacturers operating in Japan, said they received more than 20 times the normal orders for disposable face masks this month, due to the mask shortage in the country. 

People line up to buy face masks outside a pharmacy in Taipei, Taiwan on Feb. 6. 

Quarantine officials disinfect the cabin of a KTX bullet train amid fears of a coronavirus outbreak at a depot in Goyang, South Korea on Feb 6.

People stand in line to buy protective masks at the Government Pharmaceutical Organization in Bangkok, Thailand on Feb. 6.

Two men wearing surgical masks sit at the canteen of the Tuas View dormitory in Singapore on Feb. 6. Singapore's Ministry of Health has confirmed that 28 patients, including a six-month-old infant, have tested positive for the coronavirus.

A Chinese man wears a protective mask as he walks during a snowfall in an empty and shuttered commercial street on Feb. 5 in Beijing, China.

Chelyabinsk Airport employees take part in an exercise to evacuate aircraft passengers showing symptoms of the coronavirus on Feb. 5 in Chelyabinsk, Russia. 

A couple wearing face masks as a preventative measure sit in the upper deck of a double decker bus in Hong Kong on Feb. 5.

A woman and child in face masks walk in a park on of Feb. 5 in Wuhan, China.

Passengers look out from their rooms while the World Dream cruiser is docked at the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal in Hong Kong on Feb. 5. Hong Kong authorities are keeping 3,600 passengers and crew members under quarantine on the cruise ship World Dream after three previous travelers were diagnosed with coronavirus.

People in face masks walk in a street during a snowfall in Beijing, China on Feb. 5.

Sylvie Briand, Director of global infectious hazard preparedness at the World Health Organization (WHO), attends a news conference on the new coronavirus outbreak in Geneva, Switzerland, on Feb. 4.

In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, medical workers in protective suits help transfer the first group of patients into the newly-completed Huoshenshan temporary field hospital in Wuhan in China's Hubei province, on Feb. 4.

A passenger checks herself with a digital infrared forehead thermometer measurement device at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang on Feb. 4.

Workers set up beds at an exhibition center that was converted into a hospital for coronavirus treatment in Wuhan, in China's Hubei province, on Feb. 4.

Volunteers in protective suits disinfect a railway station in Changsha, Hunan province, China on Feb. 4.

Workers make protective suits at the workshop of a company in Fuzhou, China's Fujian Province, on Feb. 4.

Stewardesses take temperatures of passengers as a preventive measure for the coronavirus on an Air China flight from Melbourne to Beijing before it land at Beijing Capital International Airport in China, on Feb. 4.

A TV crew films the Diamond Princess cruise ship anchoring off the Yokohama Port on Feb. 4, in Yokohama, near Tokyo. 

Medical workers hold a strike outside the Hospital Authority as they demand for Hong Kong to close its border with China to reduce the coronavirus spreading, in Hong Kong, on Feb. 4.

A medical worker wearing protective gear waits to take the temperature of people in the entrance of Princess Margaret Hospital in Hong Kong on Feb. 4.

Malaysian nationals being directed onto a bus by health officials in protective suits as they arrive at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang, Malaysia on Feb. 4, after being evacuated from China's Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.

A dog wears a paper cup over its mouth on a street in Beijing on Feb. 4. 

Young men wear masks to protect against the new coronavirus as they take part in a conscription examination for the national service in South Korea, on Feb. 3.

People wear face masks while waiting to buy gold on the day of the God of Wealth on Feb. 3, in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Medical staff pose for photos with a patient who was successfully treated for coronavirus and her husband, who has stayed healthy in the 14-day quarantine, in a hospital in Suining, China, on Feb. 3.

An employee of the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry in a medical mask waits for a Beijing-Moscow train to arrive at Yaroslavsky Railway Station on Feb. 3.

Signs indicating that face masks are sold out are seen at a medical supply shop on Feb. 3, in Manila, Philippines.

Military personnel go through disinfecting procedures prior to handling Italian citizens repatriated from the coronavirus hot-zone of Wuhan, at the Mario De Bernardi military airport in Pratica di Mare, Rome, on Feb. 3.

Indonesians who arrived from Wuhan are sprayed with antiseptic at Hang Nadim Airport in Indonesia on Feb. 2. 

Staff members wearing protective masks check a passenger at Shanghai railway station in Shanghai on Feb. 2, as the country is hit by an outbreak of a new coronavirus.

Indonesian migrant workers wearing masks practice an instrument called "gendang" in Hong Kong on Feb. 2. 

Indian nationals sitting in a bus are transported out of Indira Gandhi International Airport following their evacuation in New Delhi on Feb. 2.

Portuguese nationals who were in the coronavirus-stricken Chinese city of Wuhan are pictured at Figo Maduro military airbase in Lisbon on Feb. 2.

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The Peel (Ontario) Regional Police Airport Division Criminal Investigation Bureau charged Potok with “mischief and breach of recognizance.”

“Think of all of the passengers that are affected by the plane turning around,” said Peel regional police media relations officer Danny Marttini.

Potok is set to appear at the Ontario Court of Justice in Brampton in March. While he was detained at the airport, Potok contacted lawyers, who advised him to “be quiet.”

“It seems to be against their advising that I’m doing these interviews,” Potok told The Washington Post.

Already facing legal issues involving a previous fraud charge that he declined to discuss, Potok said he’s “absolutely” worried about going to prison for this offense.

“If I could do it again, I would not do it,” he said. “I would take back what I had done in a heartbeat. It seems like hindsight is 20-20 always.”

The rapper has been reposting fan support of his prank on social media.

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” Potok said in an Instagram Stories video posted at 4:24 a.m. Wednesday. “Just look forward to new music and new music videos.”

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