Lifestyles of the Rich and Reckless: Posh Pandemic Parties

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A little more than two months ago, in the aftermath of Memorial Day weekend, New Yorkers of a certain caste indulged rounds of condescension directed at a set of anonymous partygoers in the Ozarks. The catalyst was the viral image of a pool party where people were grouped a shot glass width apart, none of them wearing masks.

Wasn’t this the problem, ultimately? The rubes and the deniers, with so little regard for science, who were unwilling to sacrifice, for the collective good, the pleasures of a Miller Lite consumed at a floating cocktail table.

Now, deep into summer, we find ourselves witnessing the reckless defiance of the ultra-privileged — the bankers and technocrats, their charges, clients and affiliates — the ones whose derisive snickering at the habits of the Tesla-free can typically be heard all the way to Branson, Mo. A pandemic that has taken tens of thousands of American lives will not impede their good time; it will not upset the rituals of the season. The boogying continues as if it were Q3 2019.

And in the moneyed quarters of the country, it really is. The stock market remains inexplicably strong. And because the rich, cosseted by significant safeguards and workarounds, rarely feel the full force of catastrophe, the solidarity that might come in a shared crisis is replaced instead by stunning shows of individual invincibility and obliviousness.

The elite and sophisticated are no less likely to behave as deplorably as the rebel masses; they simply have to deal with fewer of the consequences. The virus has proved ruthlessly efficient in decimating the marginalized in far greater numbers than the affluent. It has simply reiterated the extent to which well-being is really just something else that can be bought.

Last month, Alison Friedman Brod, a Manhattan publicist who once delightedly posed under a sign that read “I do not cook. I do not clean. I do not fly commercial,” posted a picture of herself to Facebook with two doctors, on a house call, against the backdrop of an expansive Hamptons lawn.

“Part of the stress of this virus is living with uncertainty,’’ she wrote. “I have avoided many sleepless nights by constant testing.”

Perhaps some of those who attended a fund-raiser on the East End of Long Island two weeks ago, one that drew the ire of the New York’s health commissioner, were also getting their nasal passages swabbed with regularity. The charity event, attended by thousands of guests, was supposed to be a socially distant “drive-in concert” that featured, among other performances, the Goldman Sachs chief executive David Solomon channeling his inner Deadmau5. Mr. Solomon, who received a 20 percent raise in March that brought him to $27.5 million a year, calls himself “DJ D-Sol.” The evening’s organizers claimed that the rules were followed, but it hardly appeared that way to the surveillance armies of social media.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was among those to express fury. But is he really the one to inspire fear and corrective behavior among the wealthy? Recently, in response to the suggestion that a substantial tax on New York’s billionaires could close the state’s enormous budget deficits, the governor responded as if someone had proposed killing off the warblers of the Adirondacks.

“That means you would have no billionaires,” he cautioned, even though extinction of a group whose wealth grew by $77 billion in his state during the first three months of the pandemic seems unlikely.

When you are in the business of servicing the selfishly rich, you eventually find yourself catering to a spirit of lawlessness. Several days ago, Nello, a durable Italian restaurant on Madison Avenue where a bowl of middling capellini with red sauce costs $36, had its liquor license suspended. It was called out by state officials for allowing diners to eat inside, in violation of a citywide ban.

What of the children of the rich, in the absence of what parenting guides would call good modeling? Recently, a coronavirus spike in Greenwich, Conn., was traced to a series of parties populated by private school students. About half of the 41 cases that arose in the town the week of July 19 occurred among young people between the ages of 10 and 19 who had attended the same constellation of get-togethers.

It was hard to know how far the virus had spread there, however. As an aide to a local official told The Hartford Courant, the teenagers and their families were not cooperating with contact tracers. At least one student had been infected at a birthday party for a grown-up.

Remarking on the outbreak, Connecticut’s governor, Ned Lamont, said that he hoped the “power of shame’’ would change the way that people conducted themselves, a noble but doomed notion given how robustly the country produces immunities to it. Shame is not a sentiment especially endemic to 21st-century Greenwich, a place where quieter patrician values long ago gave way to the modern venalities — the uninterrupted gilt and the six-car garages. A guy in a Ted Nugent T-shirt raging at a 7-11 clerk who asks him to wear a mask is no different than the determined Fairfield County mom who will not risk the success of her daughter’s college application by revealing her misdeeds to disease detectives.

In many cases, the well-to-do want to manage a public health crisis on their own terms, choosing selectively from the safety measures at hand. Many teachers at private schools around New York are fearful of returning to school in the absence of adequate testing for those without the benefits of concierge medicine and in environments where, even under the best circumstances, children begin coughing in October and don’t stop until the end of March.

Parents everywhere, quite understandably, hope that school can begin in its conventional form. But certain parents paying large tuitions to elite institutions see it as a right to demand that classes happen live, despite the lack of convincing data on what a safe reopening of schools would look like. Education is simply another realm viewed through the lens of return on investment.

Several days ago, a small group of parents at Packer Collegiate, a private school in Brooklyn Heights, drafted a letter to administrators expressing outrage that the school year would begin remotely. They came from the worlds of finance, law, design, dentistry — which is to say that they did not make up a team of renowned epidemiologists. And yet they wrote with the apparent conviction that their own knowledge was beyond dispute, helpfully footnoting their missive with links to articles in The Atlantic and other publications, as if the educators enacting the plan had somehow failed to pay attention to the virus coverage.

Implicit in these entitled outbursts is the fear that, somehow, children of nearly unfathomable advantage will fall behind. But behind whom? And how many of these parents, you have to wonder, quietly spent the summer sequestered at home?

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