Although the two small islands are separated by only 27 miles of Caribbean sea and both are high-end, beach-ringed sanctuaries for East Coasters, Anguilla and St. Barth could not be more different. Anguilla is where billionaires go to get their beach bum on; St. Barth is where they go in high season to flaunt their mega yachts.
Each has its aficionados, who sometimes deign a day trip to their neighbor (about 40 minutes by boat), while remaining set in their affinity. But on the weekend of March 13—start of college and private school spring break and high season par excellence—the most devoted among them, those who had not cancelled hotel and villa reservations despite intensifying Coronavirus uncertainties, found themselves in the same boat: desperately trying to figure out how to flee paradise and get back home.
“It’s eerie when something is so beautiful you think surely it’s the safest place to be, but then suddenly you’re told it’s not,” said New York-based jewelry designer and philanthropist Brooke Garber Neidich, who has been coming to St. Bart's for 35 years and arrived on March 14 to check on the progress on a house she and her husband are building on the island’s Baie des Flamands, next to LVMH’s newly expanded Cheval Blanc St. Bart's hotel. Neidich and her husband were among the fortunate.
“We came by charter," she added. "We figured, well, [if things go south], we can always turn around and leave—and we did!” she said.
But for others things would get rougher by the day. On March 12, before most spring breakers had arrived, St. Maarten banned flights and passengers from Germany from landing at its Princess Juliana International Airport. SXM, as it’s called for short, is a hub, along with San Juan’s Luis Munoz Marin International Airport (SJU), for visitors to Anguilla and St. Barth. From there, they board connecting flights on smaller aircraft operated by the likes of Seabourne, Tradewinds Aviation, or Winair, or, if headed to Anguilla, they board a ferry from a dock near SXM.
By Saturday, March 14, St. Maarten announced it was banning all flights from the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States, effective Tuesday the 17. A day later, on March 15, France announced a lockdown. What ensued was pure chaos.
Anguilla: "Many of us are stranded"
“St. Maarten said the airport would remain open so people could get off,” said a Westchester-based Anguilla homeowner who’d arrived on the island on Friday the 13th on JetBlue and had a return flight booked with them. “But airlines promptly cancelled all flights both ways, including mine. While the hotels are mostly empty, there are people in villas, and quite a few private jets. But many of us are stranded. There was to my knowledge no ‘get yourselves home’ order from the State Department until most countries had closed their borders and all remaining flights were full—or wildly overbooked.”
On Anguilla, the homeowner continued, “tourists and expats with houses have sorted into two groups, those who are getting out via various means—Delta or United via SXM, charter to Puerto Rico’s SJU, etcetera—and those who decided it’s safer here.”
There are no COVID-19 cases diagnosed on Anguilla as yet and everyone with symptoms is being assiduously quarantined. “Everyone assumes it’s here nonetheless,” another frequent visitor said, “but it has been impressive to see how the island has coped. There have been regular, clear announcements from the health department, premier, and governor, all with consistent facts and advice. Locals are concerned but calm—they have been through so much, what with the destruction of Hurricane Irma [which struck in 2017]. They have set up a service to shop for seniors. And some take-out places give you an appointment time for your pick up, so there are never more than two people shopping at once. Restaurants are open but distancing table. Not everyone is observing protocols, but more do so every day.”
However, SXM Airport, my friend from Westchester said, “was bedlam”—she’d made two ferry trips there from Anguilla to catch flights on which she’d re-booked herself but about whose cancellations she had not been notified.
“Delta and Winair reps kept trying to pawn me off on each other. And there were no signs of Seabourne or JetBlue staff in the terminal. I looked because I would have liked to strangle one. I realize this is an unprecedented situation, but none of the airlines has covered itself with glory," she said.
"I am fit, well-off, have a place to stay back on Anguilla, had just a carry on, and can speak up for myself. If any of those had been different, I would have been far worse off. If the airlines want a $50 billion bailout, they will need to prove themselves competent to spend it. And they must have an obligation of care toward passengers, as in the E.U.”
St. Barth: "The island is almost completely shut down"
On St. Barth, Olivia Junieres was not going anywhere—she lives there and owns a consultancy/concierge company on the island, the O Agency. When I spoke to her last week, she said she had seen from her office window one Tradewinds flight from Puerto Rico landing earlier in the day on St. Barth's notoriously perilous (and picturesque) tiny airstrip.
But otherwise, “the island is almost completely shut down. Our Bucket Regatta, which marks the high season for us and happens this week, was cancelled. It’s the source of much of the annual income for many local businesses. The hotels are now closed through April 1, as are the restaurants and all but essential services. But I’m fairly certain that another 15- to 30-day quarantine will be announced soon.” (St. Bart's to date has three confirmed coronavirus cases.)
Richard Mishaan, an interior designer based in New York, had rented a villa for his stay and arrived on St. Bart's via St. Maarten on March 14. “At SXM, we saw an Air France plane that was sealed and grounded; there were five Germans aboard and they were being isolated, I was told. Once on St. Bart's, we had dinner with friends at Maya’s (the popular see-and-be-seen spot on Gustavia harbor) and woke on Sunday to the news that the St. Maarten airport is closed to all incoming flights. That started to make us very uncomfortable. I was able to get flights to get back home the following day through Puerto Rico, but other friends had to wait until Wednesday, and some until Thursday. In San Juan, national guardsmen were taking people’s temperature at random. And the immigration officer told us that they had locked down the flights after ours.”
The Local Impact
Anguilla closed its port to passengers on midnight Friday, March 20, although cargo will continue coming in, if on a reduced schedule. French citizens on St. Barth and all other French Caribbean territories (there were still a few on Guadeloupe and Saint-Martin, Junieres told me) had to return home by last night, Sunday, March 22.
Neidich, back in New York, is self-quarantining from her two-year-old grandson. “He doesn’t understand social distancing,” she said, laughing. “But I was at dinner with nine people at Tamarind [another popular St. Bart's spot] on Sunday. We sat at a round table. We didn’t hug or kiss, but we were not 6 feet apart.”
There is wide concern about the local St. Barth economy. “The major hotels make money here through April—that is now largely ruined," Junieres said. "Normally, they stay open through the summer as well, to accommodate the mainly French clientele that arrives here between July 15 and August 15—whoever is not going to St. Tropez, or Greece, or Ibiza that year. They are able to stay open then because of the money they made in the early spring and the real money they start making again in November. Their not opening in the summer will affect restaurants and other businesses here.
"And this,” she sighed, “was going to be our first normal winter and spring since 2016. [Irma wreaked devastation in 2017.] But I believe the owner crowd will be back as soon as soon as they can. They are having work done on their houses.”
My friend from Anguilla returned home on the last flight out on Friday night from St. Maarten, on United to Newark, New Jersey. “If one more person on the plane talked about the last choppers getting out of Saigon in 1975, I would have coughed on them," she said. "Everyone at the ferry or airport had a story about canceled flights, crazy itineraries (one family with a bunch of kids was flying to St. Kitts and just hoping for an onward flight), and lack of communication from airlines and the U.S. government.”
As for the COVID-19 situation on Anguilla, “still no positive diagnoses,” she said. "But there are concerns about Anguillans who came home last week, including 24 students, who were told to self-isolate and are not. But as one local told me, “everyone knows who they are and runs away from them.”
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