ÎLE DE NOIRMOUTIER, France — 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 national authorities said it would be illegal.
“We were powerless because people were not confined to their principal residences,” 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 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 of the sick, putting at greater risk local residents who tend to be older and have limited incomes.
Perhaps more than anything else, the influx into second homes has ignited anger over what the global pandemic is laying bare every day: the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor. Nowhere is that anger rawer than in France, which has 3.4 million second homes — far more than any of its neighbors — and whose domestic politics have been roiled in recent years by debates over inequality.
Unlike the second-home-owning class, many Europeans face the likelihood of spending weeks in quarantine in cramped spaces. Some have been laid off while others must continue to work, sometimes with limited protection, in low-paying jobs like supermarket cashier or deliveryperson that require contact with people.
At first, the French government urged citizens to work from home in order to slow the spread of the virus. But faced with the prospect of people refusing to work because of the health risks, Bruno Le Maire, the finance minister, urged all employees from “activities that are essential to the functioning of the country to go to their workplaces.”
According to both locals and Parisians on the island, some urbanites arrived in Noirmoutier and headed straight to the beach. They were seen picnicking, kite surfing, jogging and biking. In retribution, tires of about half a dozen cars with Paris plates were slashed.
“Their behavior was unacceptable,” said Frédéric Boucard, 47, an oyster farmer. “It’s as if they were on vacation.”
Another local, Claude Gouraud, 55, said, “We should have blocked the bridge weeks ago.”
In Italy, currently the European nation with the most infections and deaths, many fled south from the hard-hit north, the region first put in lockdown. Although hard figures are unavailable, some officials in the south have attributed new infections to the influx. Last week, Ruggero Razza, the Sicilian regional council member for health, said on television that many of the new infections in Sicily — 846 on that day alone — were caused by an influx of nearly 40,000 people from other regions.
In Spain, José María Aznar, the former prime minister, packed his bags for his holiday villa in Marbella, a celebrity resort on the Mediterranean, leaving Madrid on the very day that the capital shut all schools and universities. The move fueled anger across social media as well as calls to monitor Aznar and lock him inside his villa.
In Germany, authorities have been discouraging people from moving to their second homes. In the northern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, as police monitored state borders, officials banned people from using their country homes unless they had come for work.
Hotels in Germany have been ordered to close. But the Grand Hotel Sonnenbichl, in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, got special permission to stay open for one guest and his entire entourage: King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun of Thailand. A frequent visitor to Bavaria, the king also owns a lakeside villa in Tutzing, southwest of Munich.
In Greece, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced a nationwide lockdown last week after thousands of city dwellers ignored his appeals to stay home and fled to villages and islands, which are in no position to handle coronavirus cases if they arrive.
Last week, the mayors of several Aegean Islands asked the government to curb arrivals from the mainland. The mayor’s office on Milos described the recent arrivals as “Trojan horses that could spread the virus into the community.”
Other countries — including Belgium, Norway and Croatia — have explicitly forbidden people to go to their vacation homes for quarantine.
Despite the fact that many wealthy French own second homes, raising the risk of spreading the virus, the government has not limited access. In fact, France has a long history of exodus from the capital during uncertain times; past outbreaks of the plague and cholera, along with political trouble, have sent the Parisian elite to the countryside.
“Social elites have always had one foot in the city and one in the country,” said Jean Viard, a sociologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. “Leaving town in times of epidemics has always been the rule.”
The coronavirus is spreading across France as the recent yellow vest movement has reinforced the historic divisions between Paris and the rest of the country, he added.
On Noirmoutier, the mayor, Faucher, said he wondered whether the French government’s relaxed attitude toward the second homes reflected a misguided “desire to relieve the pressure on Paris,” where hospitals were being inundated with infected patients.
But Noirmoutier has no facility to treat serious conditions, with the closest emergency unit more than 25 miles away, he said.
Although Vartanian said it was too early to draw a direct link from the coronavirus cases that have appeared on the island to the new arrivals, “it’s well known that the virus doesn’t move by itself; it moves with populations.”
On March 16, news reports of an imminent lockdown sent tens of thousands of Parisians scrambling. Train stations experienced a sudden, huge wave of departures, according to the SNCF, France’s national railway.
Car owners could be seen stuffing belongings into their vehicles, especially in the wealthier areas like the 16th arrondissement, where 15% to 20% are estimated to have decamped, said Danièle Giazzi, the district’s mayor.
Tensions were particularly high the first few days after the Parisians descended on the island.
If they weren’t kite surfing, the Parisians were hoarding. At a bakery in a neighborhood called L’Épine, one Parisian left with 20 baguettes in her arms. At an organic supermarket, another Parisian stocked up on organic cat food, and yet another filled a shopping cart with $325 worth of groceries. Locals and Parisians fought over the fresh vegetables that were delivered at 10 a.m.
“They jostled my supervisor of fresh vegetables in trying to create a path from the first leek to the biggest leek,” said Isis Reininger, the manager of the supermarket.
Things have calmed down thanks to law enforcement, Faucher said. A helicopter flies low over the beach to enforce a new ban, reporting trespassers to police officers on the ground. Patrol officers have issued 50 warnings to people flouting confinement rules.
Bruce Kelley, an American from Connecticut, and his French wife drove down from Paris to their vacation home, making sure to take their car with the non-Parisian plates.
“Leaving home is a selfish act, and it’s always on our minds to some degree,” Kelley, 59, said, standing next to his Volvo SUV. “What was really brutal is being told we couldn’t go to the beach here because the beach is 200 yards from our home, and nobody is there.”