How Sardinia's Dolce Vita Turned Into A COVID-19 Nightmare
On the Italian island’s Emerald Coast, the summer lifestyles of the rich and famous ignored the threat of a new coronavirus breakout. Now hundreds are testing positive, including Billionaire nightclub owner Flavio Briatore.
PORTO CERVO — You could use Instagram to do contact tracing. Because those who went to Sardinia"s famous Emerald Coast this summer did not resist the temptation to let everyone else know who they were with and what they were doing. Photos, stories and live videos give us an account of what happened in the crazy August in and around Porto Cervo. People hugged and danced without masks, posed for selfies with strangers, drank from the same bottle. In short: many behaved as if the COVID-19 nightmare was over.
It isn't: the virus was circulating among them, in clubs, beaches, resorts and camping sites. Now many are infected. So far, some 200 people tested positive in the sparsely populated Sardinian northeast, and some 2,000 have been quarantined. On Wednesday, the news broke that Flavio Briatore, the flashy businessman famous for managing the Benetton-Renault Formula One racing team in the 1990s and who owns Sardinia's well-known Billionaire nightclub, had contracted coronavirus.
Briatore was among the first to understand the impact the pandemic would have on discos and clubs, and transformed his Billionaire into a kind of restaurant-theater. But he didn't seem to understand the risk: he made headlines in Italian media lambasting the government for closing down clubs in mid-August. He also started a row with the local government for other restrictive measures, and even took on the scientists: "Virologists keep us in check saying that there will be a new wave in the fall," he said on August 12. "If it doesn't happen in the fall, they'll say it could happen six months later. We have to learn and live with the virus."
Meanwhile, the Billionaire was turning into a coronavirus hotspot: almost all of the club's more than 50 staff became infected, as did some of its prominent guests.
The staff who haven't yet been tested aren't sleeping well, while they are in voluntary isolation or mandatory quarantine. Alessandra, 27, waited tables for a few days at the Billionaire. She's still waiting to find out if she's been infected. "The parties would unfold as a dinner, with shows between courses," she says. "I don't know if colleagues were infected in the club or at home. Indoors, staff had to wear masks, even if some customers didn't care. But those are people that spend a lot of money, and so they end up being always right. At the end of the night, many demanded to dance and nobody could stop them."
The Billionaire was not Sardinia's first nightlife attraction to become a coronavirus hotspot. First came Porto Rotondo, where hundreds of young people joined a party where few wore masks — and some came home with the virus. Then came Porto Cervo where Briatore's Billionaire club was not the only club to become a COVID-19 cluster. At Sottovento, another of the Emerald Coast's historic clubs, the owner had shaken everything up to keep business going in the face of the pandemic, including knocking down the roof so that customers could dance under the stars. But the virus got here, too: the manager is currently in the hospital.
"Customers felt immune, they didn't wear masks and often passed drinks around," says the head of a local health task force, Marcello Acciaro. "Blaring music makes people speak louder, closer to each other, and creates more opportunities to spread the virus. And many people had already been in other high-risk areas, like Ibiza and Croatia."
The virus even arrived at the Emerald Coast's most exclusive address, Aga Khan's Yacht Club Costa Smeralda, the temple of sailing. "We did 101 swabs," the YCCS said. "All the guests tested negative, while three of our 88 staff tested positive."
Beaches are emptying and many visitors returned home early.
Porto Cervo and Cannigione are just 21 kilometers apart, but vacations are completely different. In Cannigione, there are no luxury resorts: only houses and camping sites. But authorities expect the virus to flare up among the tents too. At Isuledda, the biggest holiday camp in the area with some 1,800 guests, health officials have already found several positive test results. Authorities are considering imposing mass-quarantine, though they haven't yet decided.
Now everyone is afraid: the young people who had gone dancing have come home earlier, the football players who couldn't resist the champagne, the other VIPs who met in yachts, villas and exclusive clubs. Their parties have turned into coronavirus tests. Beaches are emptying and many visitors returned home early.
"It's obvious that people are worried," says a waitress in Abbiadori, near Porto Cervo. "Our customers do not talk about anything else. The news is scary, and nobody told us clearly whether the situation is under control."
Acciario, the head of the health task force, says the government closed clubs just a week ago and new cases will still arrive through the end of the month: "Let's wait for tourists to leave, and things will stabilize."
The Emerald Coast was hoping that this year's unusual summer holiday season might extend into September. It had started late, but now it's ending early.