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.

A club in Sardinia
A club in Sardinia
Nicola Pinna

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."

Flavio Briatore, center — Photo: briatoreflavio/Instagram

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.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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