The Jet-Setters Scheming to Break All the COVID Rules
The founder of the Facebook group Covid Travellers says it’s a “safe place” for globe-trotters—who seem willfully blind to the danger of the coronavirus.
As most people were scrounging for toilet paper or hoarding hand sanitizer during the pandemic, a group of jet-setters on Facebook were plotting their next vacations. They swapped strategies on how to avoid quarantines, get around mask mandates, and—as the months went on—even evade a potential vaccine requirement. Calling themselves the “Covid Travellers,” they declared that now was the time to “think about travel, not death,” and deemed their group open to anyone who “keep[s] their freedom in times of fascism.”
The founder of the 5,000-member group, a German entrepreneur named Christoph Heuermann who lives on a boat and dispenses advice about tax havens, told The Daily Beast he created it as a “safe space” for people who are “bullied” for wanting to go on vacation.
But there is nothing “safe” about this space. Instead, its members are looking for ways to circumvent public health protocols or avoid them altogether. Members have suggested bribing doctors for fake vaccine certificates and forging doctor’s notes to avoid wearing a mask. One recently compared face coverings to the stars Jewish people were forced to wear during the Holocaust.
“I just arrived in Playa del Carmen, the place is full of life and easygoing,” one member wrote last month. “No masks if you don’t want to wear one. Get out of Europe before you get infected with FEAR-2020.”
Heuermann, the group’s founder, is a self-described “permanent tourist” who claims to have visited 200 different countries. He lives on his boat, the Staatenlos—German for “stateless”—from which he runs various internet startups. Among them are a company called Watchdogs Intelligence, which specializes in “digital and social private investigations,” and one called Tax Free Today, which offers advice on tax havens and opening bank accounts abroad. (The tagline for the latter reads, “Stop complaining and free yourself from the burden of the State.”)
From his Facebook posts, it’s clear that Heuermann has little concern for the virus that has killed more than 1.5 million people around the world. In public posts, he refers to Spain as a “fascist slave country” for its COVID restrictions and brags about having a “#coronaparty” with German sailors on his boat. (The boat is, naturally, decorated with a giant “Don’t Tread on Me” flag.) He also seems not to have a firm hold on statistics or reality: On Nov. 28, nearly a month after the election, he boldly bet any of his Facebook friends 500 euros that Trump would be the next president of the United States.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Heuermann claimed he does not necessarily agree with the views expressed in the group. He insisted that the more provocative content in the group was more of a marketing gimmick, and that he personally is not opposed to common-sense public health measures like wearing a mask.
“It’s a safe space for those people who are bullied in the mainstream,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s dangerous. I think freedom of speech is much more important than dangerous effects evolving from it.” (In a post just before the interview, Heuermann surveyed the group as to what he should tell this journalist, adding a laughing emoji. Minutes afterward, he informed the group that this article would be “a great propaganda piece,” adding that this journalist “was not very happy about this ‘safe space.’”)
A Facebook spokesperson said the company was not recommending the group to its members and would proactively remove any posts that violated its rules. The spokesperson said Facebook has removed more than 12 million pieces of content containing misinformation over the course of the pandemic, and displayed warnings on about 167 million additional items.
Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, noted that some of the information in the group, such as which countries maintain lax COVID restrictions, is readily available online. But he added that other content posed serious public health concerns.
“I think there are lots of people trying to get back to some semblance of normal life,” he said. “But it’s very dangerous when they’re dabbling with fake vaccine certificates or submitting false samples, because that is going to end up getting somebody infected and somebody hurt.”
By far the most popular destination among the Covid Travellers is Mexico. The country recently surpassed 1 million cases and 100,000 deaths, and the CDC has given it its highest warning level, but at least one Covid Traveller deemed it “the last place to have a good and honest time.” (The same commenter declared that the Caribbean islands used to be “fun” but had now been “f’cked over by covid politics.”) One commenter posted photos of empty beaches and indoor drinks and wrote: “The world is ok in Mexico. No mask duty at hotels and no entry issues.” Another reported that, in Puerto Morelos, “all shops have signs that masks are obligatory, yet we entered everywhere no mask, and no one says anything or acts weird.”
The group members have just as many opinions on where not to go. While Brazil has been a popular recommendation, one commenter recently warned that the country was “degrading” after the mayoral elections, with large companies enforcing “bullshit like wearing a mask in between sips of your coffee.” Other no-gos include St. Lucia (“packed with curfews and restrictions”) and the Netherlands (“the most fascist when it comes to mask wearing”). One member was recently attacked for saying that Istanbul seemed “quite normal and very enjoyable” by a member who was furious about malls there being closed to the public.
“Most (I’d say 95%) of people wear masks outside, and coffee shops and restaurants being closed makes for a sad situation,” the angry commenter wrote, adding in another post: “Life is definitely no longer ‘normal’ since December 1, I’m out of here asap!”
Another common topic is logistics: how to get from one country to another while avoiding having to quarantine or get tested. (The group leans heavily international, and members have suggested parts of the U.S. for this purpose. “You really think Florida has any requirements on testing?” one member recently scoffed, likely referring to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ anti-lockdown stance.) When one member asked about traveling inside Germany for the holidays, another offered to write him a fake work letter in order to help him book a room. When a different member asked about quarantine requirements upon arriving in the country, someone helpfully responded that there was no such requirement if you were traveling for a serious health issue: “Maybe you got some aching tooth?” he wrote.
For a group of people who want to travel frequently and cheaply, avoiding multi-week quarantines may seem reasonable, if not entirely ethical. The opposition to testing is less defensible, given that a free, 30-second test should be a small price to pay for globe-trotting during a global pandemic. But that’s if you’re functioning in normal world, in which testing positive for COVID-19 is a moral imperative not to go out in public. In the world of Covid Travellers, it is simply a procedural roadblock.
The same man who said he wanted to travel somewhere that “functions as normal as possible” clarified that he wanted to avoid testing “not because of the money, but because it seems like a potential last-minute problem.” When another volunteered that the Dubai airport was offering PCR tests for free, with results available in under 24 hours, another replied: “Avoid PCR at all costs.” (There do seem to be some conspiracy-type fears at play. Discussing the benefits of a saliva PCR test versus a nasal swab, Heuermann wrote that a saliva test seemed preferable “because it is not invasive and they just get your DNA only. You can also easily avoid that by having someone else spitting into the sample.”)
Mask-wearing is equally vilified, and members offer many tips on how to avoid wearing them, from asking for a doctor’s note to forging your own. One woman suggested that travelers worried about long international flights “take a night flight… when lights are off no one sees you without [a] mask.” Heuermann recently asked the group what they would do if someone on the street told them to put a mask on, and answers ranged from “cough on them,” to “shoot them and then explain why they should mind their own business.” When one woman asked if wearing a mask was really such a big deal, another member responded: “Is it such a big deal to wear a bright yellow star saying ‘JEW’ on your arm?”
For a group of people who want to travel freely and avoid wearing masks at all costs, you might think the news of an effective vaccine would be welcome. You would be wrong. A recent post asking what people would do if a vaccine was required for travel elicited more than 180 responses, including: “hire a private jet,” “bribe anyone to give me the pass,” and “visit a doctor in the third world with a fistful of good looking cash.” One member even suggested creating an “internal group” to document “where and how… to ‘get’ a vaccine without getting it actually.”
Those who challenged the dominant narrative were quickly shut down. One woman who pleaded with members not to travel to Australia without a vaccine was deemed “a proud North Korean,” and informed that “we will not [get] back our freedom and liberty by complying with a fascist regime.” Another man tried to point out that vaccine documentation was already required to travel to certain countries with diseases like yellow fever. “If a non-sense covid vaccine is mandatory to fly anywhere and all your vaccine data is tracked online… good luck with your health,” one commenter replied.
Dr. Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health and an expert on public trust in vaccines, said much of the rhetoric in the group mirrored that of other anti-vaxx groups. It starts with a discussion of individual freedoms, then moves on to a resistance toward even the least-burdensome restrictions.
“Wearing a mask is not a huge restriction, and based on the fact that it’s one of the least restrictive measures, you’d assume there would be slightly more acceptance, especially among those who emphasize the ability to do stuff,” he said. “But that’s not the case, because that becomes part of your identity.”
Just this week, White House coronavirus adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci predicted the U.S. has yet to see the worst repercussions of Thanksgiving travel, despite having its deadliest week on record. The CDC has urged Americans not to travel over the holidays, warning that this winter may be “the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation.” World leaders from France to Germany have instituted lockdowns in recent weeks in an effort to stave off holiday surges.
Asked whether the group members were selfish for ignoring this advice, Heuermann said he believes they “still care about others,” but “they first care about themselves.”
“They don't want to be enslaved by restrictions that in many cases don’t make sense,” he said, adding later: “You always have to care about yourself first.”