VENICE—During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Italy, the island of Sardinia largely escaped any serious outbreaks. The tourist season was over and the islanders kept to themselves. When the lockdown ended in mid-May, local health officials wanted to test everyone who came to the island to keep it COVID-free. That plan was largely shot down by elite mainlanders like Silvio Berlusconi, who wanted to spend the summer at his lavish villa, once best known for “bunga bunga” parties and the nude former Czech prime minister’s untimely erection caught on a paparazzo’s long-lens camera.
The idea of any restrictions to enter Sardinia was also scoffed at by playboy Flavio Briatore, the former manager of the Renault Formula 1 team who chaired the Queen Park Rangers Football Club. His aptly named boys’ club, Billionaire, would have faced an uncertain future without the mainland glitterati coming to the island to party.
And so, Sardinia opened its doors. By August, it was Italy’s biggest COVID-19 hot spot and, by September, both Briatore and Berlusconi had tested positive for coronavirus.
The Billionaire club, which has its own red carpet, is part of the Cipriani family of elite venues for people with fast cash. It is thought to be the epicenter of the Sardinian outbreak after nearly 60 employees tested positive, including many of the dancers and “girls” who had come in for “dinner events” and parties in the club’s many private rooms.
The “girls” are recruited by influencers who work for the club. They are mostly wannabe models who come to parties like those held at the Billionaire and other similar clubs around Europe, to try to get noticed and eventually find modeling work. In the case of the Billionaire, at least a few of them were COVID superspreaders.
More than 3,000 clubbers were exposed to the Billionaire club cluster, and tracing them was complicated by the fact that nearly 75 percent of those who attended gave fake phone numbers on their contact-tracing forms, which are required in Italy for any venue. The fake numbers were mostly given by men who attended alone, likely to avoid being found out by an angry wife—the Billionaire isn’t really a date night spot. But it meant that the 3,000 people who may well have caught COVID in the writhing crowds, then went back home and spread it further.
Berlusconi, who was diagnosed with COVID on Wednesday, is not thought to have attended the club in person. At 83, and with a new 30-year-old girlfriend, Marta Fascina, he spent his Sardinian summer at his own estate, which has sweeping views of the Mediterranean and a private elevator down to a beach that was a favorite of Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie, who once called an evening at the villa “the best night of my life.”
Instead, Berlusconi hosted Briatore at home, memorialized in an Instagram post on Briatore’s feed showing the two playboys not exactly socially distanced. Both have been COVID skeptics throughout the pandemic. Only when Briatore ended up in the hospital did he say he may have underestimated the virus.
Now that summer has ended and the tourists are gone, the Sardinian cluster will surely also die down. But the Billionaire club remains closed for the foreseeable future, as does Briatore’s Cipriani Montecarlo, which Briatore visited in late August after the Billionaire closed, and quite likely contributed to the cluster there.
Briatore has been released from the hospital, and Berlusconi is isolating without symptoms for the moment, at his villa outside Milan.