Rich Europeans Flee Virus for 2nd Homes, Spreading Fear and Fury

In France and the rest of Europe, the affluent decamp cities to spend their confinement in vacation homes, widening class divides.

On their peaceful island off France’s Atlantic Coast, some of the locals watched, with growing dread and rage, the images from Paris. As rumors began circulating about an imminent nationwide lockdown to stem the coronavirus outbreak, hordes of Parisians jammed into trains, an odd surfboard sometimes sticking out of the crowd.

There was no doubt about their destination.

“Irresponsible and selfish,” thought Dr. Cyrille Vartanian, one of the six physicians on Noirmoutier. With some time to spare — Paris was roughly five hours away — a local mayor, Noël Faucher, moved to block the only bridge to the mainland. But the national authorities said it would be illegal.

“We were powerless because people were not confined to their principal residences,” Mr. Faucher recalled, describing the influx as “an invasion.”

Overnight, the island’s population nearly doubled, to 20,000. Nearly two weeks after the nationwide lockdown went into effect on March 17, there are about 70 suspected cases of the coronavirus on the island.

In France and across Europe, affluent city dwellers have been decamping epicenters of the crisis to their second homes, where proximity to the sea or the mountains lessens the discomfort of confinement and a decent internet link permits remote work. But they also bring fears that they will spread the virus to regions with few hospitals to handle a surge in the sick, putting at greater risk local residents who tend to be older and have limited incomes.

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