Apr 3, 2020 - Economy & Business

The rich pull up the drawbridges

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

From hastily-chartered superyachts to fortresslike country estates, the wealthiest Americans have found places to ride out the pandemic far away from the masses.

Why it matters: The contrast between the rich vs. poor experience of coronavirus exposes class differences — in housing, access to health care, etc. — that are less obvious in normal times.

Where it stands: Even as elected officials tell us that the novel coronavirus does not discriminate — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called it "the great equalizer" — it's still true that the moneyed classes are walling themselves off and, on the whole, suffering less.

  • People with second (and third) homes have stampeded from hot spots like New York City to pastoral and less-afflicted areas — like the Hamptons, Cape Cod, Hilton Head and Palm Beach.
  • Thanks to "concierge medicine," where people pay hefty annual fees in exchange for near-unlimited access to their doctors, the rich have been getting faster access to COVID-19 tests, plus more attention when they're sick.

Headlines that tell the story:

  • "Chic Hamptons food stores ransacked by the wealthy amid coronavirus pandemic" (NY Post)
  • "Private jets 'pour in' to Martha's Vineyard as rich flee coronavirus" (The Telegraph)
  • "Billionaires are chartering superyachts for months at a time to ride out the coronavirus pandemic" (Business Insider)
  • "The U.S. has a shortage of coronavirus tests, so the ultra-wealthy are paying concierge doctors to do their own," (Business Insider)

What they're saying: "There is an undercurrent of unequal sacrifice," Chuck Collins, a senior scholar at the progressive Institute for Policy Studies, tells Axios.

Seasonal vacation resorts don't have the doctors, hospital beds and other resources to care for throngs of sick people — prompting calls for the moneyed interlopers (renters and owners alike) to go home.

  • The mayor of Honolulu wants the Trump administration to suspend nonessential travel to Hawaii.
  • The governor of New Jersey is urging people not to come to the Jersey Shore — even enlisting Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino to spread the "stay home" word.
  • The chiefs of Nantucket Cottage Hospital (which has 15 beds) and Martha's Vineyard Hospital (25 beds) are asking people to keep off the islands.
  • Angry Cape Cod residents are circulating a (probably doomed) petition to close the bridges to their area.

While the wealthy were among the first in the U.S. to contract the virus (as they're more apt to travel abroad), the brunt of the pandemic has hurt the working poor.

  • Per the WSJ: "The new coronavirus has struck hardest in working-class neighborhoods in New York City’s outer boroughs, city data shows, underlining how the pandemic has ravaged densely packed lower-income areas where social-distancing guidelines have proved difficult to implement."

People who live in poverty are more likely to have underlying illnesses that make them more susceptible to coronavirus — asthma, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes.

  • "Income in the United States is our pre-existing condition," Collins said. "This infection is landing on an extremely unequal society — much more unequal than 40 years ago."

A tale of two pandemics: As soon as NYC schools closed, real estate agents were flooded with calls from people begging to rent houses in the Hamptons — where a single summer's lease can easily cost $100,000 — immediately and sight unseen.

  • "You have people calling in and saying, 'We're going to be in a car tomorrow, give me a house that I can move into,' " Eddie Shapiro, founder and CEO of Nest Seekers International, tells Axios. "We've never seen that."

To drive there, the renters would have had to pass through Queens — the city's hardest-hit borough — where "apocalyptic" conditions at a 545-bed public hospital in Elmhurst have turned the neighborhood into a poster child for the virus' wrath.

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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

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