Summer Jet-Setters Turned Sardinia Into a Coronavirus Hot Spot

Summer Jet-Setters Turned Sardinia Into a Coronavirus Hot Spot


ROME — The allure of the turquoise waters, extravagant villas and exclusive dance clubs of the Emerald Coast of Sardinia proved stronger than ever in August, as Italian tourists hungry for virus-free air mingled with regulars of the international party circuit hopping across from places like the Spanish island of Ibiza and Mykonos in the Aegean Sea.

They joined Silvio Berlusconi, the mogul who dominated Italian politics for a quarter-century and whose Sardinian refuge is worthy of a Roman emperor; and his businessman friend Flavio Briatore, an acquaintance of President Trump, biological father of Heidi Klum’s first child and owner of the island’s unapologetically hedonistic club Billionaire.

Now Mr. Berlusconi, 83, lies in a Milan hospital with pneumonia after contracting the coronavirus. Mr. Briatore, who dropped in to pay him a visit at his Sardinian estate and who had publicly complained about what he said was an overreaction by the government to the pandemic, is quarantined in Milan with Covid-19, too.

It is not clear when or how Mr. Berlusconi or Mr. Briatore were infected. But local officials say that Billionaire and a few other clubs ignored health regulations and became the petri dish of an island epidemic that infected soccer coaches, socialites and showgirls as it spread to the mainland.

“If the owners of the clubs were more careful these outbreaks could have been avoided,” he said, adding that, despite having gotten the outbreak under control, “we are seen as the source of everything wrong.”

For the authorities in Sardinia, the summer realized their worst nightmare.

In March, as infections and deaths exploded in the country’s north, the southern island’s governor, Christian Solinas, pleaded with the authorities in Rome to ban travel to Sardinia because Italians, especially those with a second home there, kept arriving. The government obliged.

As a result, Sardinia essentially dodged the Covid-19 disaster. In mid-April, when Italy reached more than 170,000 total cases for the virus, Sardinia had about 1,000.

Over the ensuing months, the virus all but vanished from the island, with zero new infections on May 14. Mr. Solinas vowed to keep it that way and at the time proposed requiring a “sanitary passport,” essentially a sticker certifying a negative coronavirus test result attached to a boat or plane ticket. The government called it unconstitutional, and ultimately, tourists only had to register via an online form on the region’s website.

Still, it seemed sufficient. Mr. Solinas, using powers given by the national government, decided to reopen outdoor nightclubs, as long as people danced at a distance.

But August has been Sardinia’s hot season since the 1960s, when the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of some 20 million Ismaili Muslims worldwide and an enthusiastic jet-setter, banded together with friends to buy miles of northeastern coastal land from herders and developed luxurious hotels, yacht and golf clubs and a village in medieval Moorish style along what became known as the Emerald Coast.

She said that 27 infected members of the club’s staff were isolated in single rooms at the company’s expense in the Billionaire residences, and confirmed that about 30 contractors had also been infected.

Mr. Briatore is in quarantine after discovering his infection during an Aug. 22 checkup for an unrelated ailment. This week, he assured his Instagram followers, “I have not disappeared,” and said that he was in “super form.”

Mr. Briatore, a convicted card cheat and fixer of Formula 1 motor races, is also the star of the Italian version of “The Apprentice.”

“There was only one person that I wanted. And that was Flavio,” Mr. Trump said in a promo for the Italian show. In another spot, the two men appear together at Trump Tower, firing each other. Mr. Briatore once claimed of Mr. Trump that he had been “the first to bring him to Europe” but has since downgraded their relationship status to a publicity stunt.

Mr. Briatore, who usually wears a white beard and black T-shirts, has bristled at the attacks on Billionaire, telling Italian reporters that his club “always respected the rules.”

But videos on social media depicting less-than-quiet sit-down dinners have caused an uproar.

In one, a train of women transport champagne bottles loaded with sparklers through thumping music and a sweaty crowd. Almost nobody is wearing a mask.

In a social media post a few days before his coronavirus diagnosis, Mr. Briatore, 70, attacked a virologist for speaking badly about his club, saying that such scientists had “terrorized Italy.”

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