How the rich and famous in US deal with the coronavirus

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow on a plane to Paris, wearing a pricey face mask that features five layers of filtration.
Actress Gwyneth Paltrow on a plane to Paris, wearing a pricey face mask that features five layers of filtration.PHOTO: GWYNETHPALTROW/INSTAGRAM

The well-heeled are sparing no expense when minimising their experience with the virus

The new coronavirus knows no national borders or social boundaries. That doesn't mean that social boundaries don't exist.

"En route to Paris," actress Gwyneth Paltrow wrote on Instagram recently, beneath a shot of herself on a plane to Paris Fashion Week and wearing a black face mask. "I've already been in this movie," she added, referring to her role in the 2011 disease thriller Contagion. "Stay safe."

She did not pose with just any mask. She wore a sleek "urban air mask" by Swedish company Airinum that features five layers of filtration and an "ultrasmooth and skin-friendly finish".

Priced up to US$99 (S$140), the Airinum mask, which has been popping up on Instagram stylistas, is sold out on its website until next month.

The rich are sparing no expense when it comes to minimising their experience with the coronavirus. Business executives are ditching first class for private planes. Jet-setters are redirecting their travel plans to more insular destinations. And wealthy clients are consulting with concierge doctors and other VIP healthcare services.

Why spend US$3.79 on a bottle of hand sanitiser from Target when Byredo, a European luxury brand, makes what it calls a "rinse-free hand wash" with floral notes of pear and bergamot for US$35? The latter product is sold out too.

Demand has also shot up for the preparedness kits sold by Judy, a start-up led by publicist Simon Huck, a noted friend of Kim Kardashian West. The company had sold out its fanny pack survival kits that cost up to US$150. Each pack contains a first-aid kit, biohazard bag, wet wipes, hand sanitiser, batteries, a flashlight and other gear. "We launched 40 days ago, and three weeks into our launch we have a global pandemic," Mr Huck said.

Some wealthy people have told Bloomberg News that they have been staying in their Hamptons homes and are prepared to jet off to cabins in Idaho if things get worse. And The Guardian reported that executives have chartered jets for "evacuation flights" out of China and other affected areas.

For some private jet companies, fear equals opportunity. Southern Jet, a charter jet company in Boca Raton, Florida, recently sent out a limited test marketing e-mail with the tagline: "Avoid coronavirus by flying private - Request a quote today!"

The company got a bounce in requests for flights, which can cost about US$20,000 for a trip on a mid-sized jet from Florida to New York.

A couple of responses called the campaign "repugnant" and "in poor taste", said Mr Eric Sanchez, the company's sales director.

"We were not attempting to incite fear with this e-mail," he said. "We simply wanted to show the coronavirus may be a serious threat to the public, and we are glad we can offer a service that can possibly provide extra safety."

 
 

Other well-heeled travellers who were planning vacations in affected countries, like Italy, are instead opting for the seaborne isolation of yachts, to lounge in the Mediterranean sunshine far from the infected shores.

Ms Jennifer Saia, president of B&B Yacht Charter in Newport, Rhode Island, said that one long-time client, a retired telecommunications executive, had booked a villa for his family in Florence, Italy, for next month but is now chartering a yacht in the Bahamas instead.

"It totally makes sense," she said. "You're keeping your family contained in a very small, should-be-clean environment. And going from your car to your private jet terminal, to your private jet right onto the tarmac. And from there, right onto your yacht, and not having to deal with the public."

Another thing people try to avoid, even in the best of times? Emergency rooms.

The well-heeled who wish for round-the-clock access to doctors, expedited appointments with specialists and members-only hospital amenities are turning to concierge medical services. One New York provider, Sollis Health, offers family memberships for about US$8,000 a year, with facilities - basically, VIP emergency rooms - on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Tribeca and, in summer, a house call service in the Hamptons.

 
 

Since coronavirus fears arrived in the United States, membership inquiries have spiked, said Dr Ben Stein, the medical director of Sollis.

Anxiety among current members has some of them stocking up on anti-viral medications including Tamiflu and Xofluza for the flu, respiratory medications like Albuterol inhalers and Sudafed, and antibiotics such as Levaquin and Azithromycin.

They are also calling with concerns about hospitals being overrun and face masks running out, Dr Stein said.

He said that one member, an actress, called about her anxieties involving a trip to Japan, where she was scheduled to shoot a kissing scene. She wanted to make sure she could avoid crowded emergency rooms should she return with flu-like symptoms.

Are such measures overkill? Designer and actor Waris Ahluwalia, who is a member of Sollis, is not taking any chances in the face of so many uncertainties.

In preparation for a wellness retreat at Le Sirenuse hotel in Positano, Italy, he called Sollis to request a home delivery of masks, along with a precautionary prescription of Xofluza, even though his doctors told him that it may not be effective against the coronavirus.

"Clearly, no one really knows what's going on," he said. "But then you also have to have a certain sense that where there's smoke, there may be fire."

 
 

The house call came with a custom mask fitting, which is of no small issue for Mr Ahluwalia, who is Sikh and wears a thick, flowing beard that would certainly violate the comically detailed list of acceptable facial hairstyles for wearing a respirator mask circulated by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

To test the fit, Mr Ahluwalia said, the Sollis doctor placed a hood, similar to those worn by beekeepers, over his head and sprayed the inside with peppermint. No smell, apparently, no leakage.

A Gulfstream IV jet or 45m superyacht may make for a fine temporary sanctuary for plutocrats who wish to travel in style in a world of swirling microbes. But for those who really want to bunker down as global infections mount, a well-stocked home bunker represents the ultimate luxury. A luxe bunker, it seems, can take many forms.

Dr Stein said that another Sollis member, an heiress in Southampton, New York, built a medical isolation room complete with a ventilation system.

The word "room", however, hardly captures it. He said it is equipped with a negative pressure system to restrict the circulation of pathogens, and is basically an isolated guest wing consisting of a bedroom and kitchen stocked with IV hydration, medicine, lab supplies, gloves, gowns, masks, oxygen and food, as well as a set of dishes and linens.

In certain pockets of Silicon Valley, where tech-elite survivalists drool over abandoned missile silos that were converted into luxury bunkers, the coronavirus is precisely the doomsday scenario they have been preparing for.

 

Mr Marvin Liao, a former partner at venture capital firm 500 Startups, has been stocking up on canned food, water, hand sanitiser and toilet paper in anticipation of an outbreak, and has lately been scoping out a high-end air purifier called Molekule Air, which costs US$799.

Mr Jon Stokes, a former Silicon Valley prepper who lives in Colorado now, said he had stockpiled about four months' worth of food, and recently purchased a stethoscope and a pulse oximeter that measures the oxygen saturation in red blood cells to monitor his family for signs of the virus.

"This exact situation is precisely what preppers prep for," he said. "Aside from the NatGeo or History Channel doomsday prepper, for ordinary preppers, this is kind of it for us: a pandemic, a shelter-in-place sort of thing, where you have to be self-sufficient for a few weeks or for a month or two. That's what we do."

NYTIMES

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 15, 2020, with the headline 'How the rich and famous in US deal with the coronavirus'. Print Edition | Subscribe