The New York-based photographer behind Melania Trump’s nude GQ shoot didn’t let the pandemic derail his 59th birthday party.
As the city urges 8.3 million New Yorkers to wear masks and avoid indoor gatherings, Antoine Verglas hosted close to two dozen people—many of them captured on social media without face coverings—for a spread of pizza, wine, and caviar on ice.
One acquaintance told The Daily Beast they didn’t attend the event but were shocked to see Instagram footage from Verglas’ party, with a group of maskless Russian models among the partygoers. “I find these parties terrible as I lost a family member to COVID-19,” the person fumed. “I feel they think they’re above everyone else and because they have money and a few powerful friends, then the rules don’t apply to them.”
“I mean we are in strange times and the scary part is the fact that you don’t know who carries the virus since some people can have it and not even know about it.”
When contacted by The Daily Beast, Verglas claimed the party only had 10 to 15 people at a time and that he offered masks to his guests. “You were safer than most events,” he said.
But several videos from the festivities appeared to show at least 20 people schmoozing at his spacious studio, which was bedecked with swanky blue lighting and apparently a smoke machine. While a handful of party-goers donned masks, especially at the beginning, most guests were not wearing coverings as they posed for photos, leaned in for hugs, and presented Verglas with a chocolate birthday cake.
Vittorio Assaf and Fabio Granato, owners of the Serafina restaurant chain, rolled in with armfuls of Farinella rectangular pizza, sans masks, one Instagram story showed. They did not return messages on Tuesday.
Mira Tzur, an Israeli-American actress and French countess—and Melania Trump impersonator who once said she can “relate to her on many levels”—posted a series of Instagram photos from the party with a caption that read in part: “with true New Yorkers that don’t take a pause!” Tzur did not respond to messages left by The Daily Beast.
But to Verglas, his celebration wasn’t a wild party; it was pizza and drinks with friends and colleagues he sees regularly. “The people who were there are people who work there during the day and then my wife and one of my sons and a few friends. It’s very limited and it’s people that take precautions and are pretty serious about what’s happening now in the world,” Verglas said.
“I’m not sure the solution is to stay at home without any contact,” he added. “It’s pretty depressing. We have to understand that you need some social contact.”
In a text message, Verglas added he planned carefully. “Seating was available spread throughout,” Verglas wrote. “People sat up front near mirrors, near windows. Masks were available for attendees as were plastic cups. The bathroom was frequently cleaned and the countertops were wiped down. Pizzas were large for easy grabbing without touching others food, paper plates to throw away, some windows were open. And, some guests wore masks when more people were around.” He said he “always encouraged people to wear masks and feel comfortable and keep distance. There was no close dancing, etc.”
“I hate to sound like I’m defensive when we took really all precautions.”
Verglas isn’t the only one to throw such affairs in the midst of a global pandemic which has killed more than 423,000 Americans. Celebrities like Rita Ora and Cardi B apologized for hosting large, unmasked parties; Morgan Wallen apologized for attending a house party and saw his SNL spot canceled; and Kendall Jenner faced the internet’s wrath after her Halloween/birthday party lured at least 100 people and she blew out her candles as a masked waiter held the cake.
Meanwhile, actress Heather Graham caught flak this week after she posted a group photo on Instagram with the words: “It’s my birthday … so I celebrated with some amigos.” One commenter posted, “Not setting much of an example during Covid.”
According to New York state guidelines, “indoor or outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people are not allowed in private homes.”
Before Thanksgiving, Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged New Yorkers not to gather for the holiday to help prevent a surge in COVID cases. “We call it 'living room spread,’” Cuomo said at the time. “‘But I'm just with my family. My family would never infect me.’ Your family’s not in control of it.” On Dec. 2, Cuomo announced the state's contact tracing data showed 70 percent of new COVID-19 cases came from households and small gatherings. “As we move forward into the winter, addressing living room spread will be one of the biggest challenges in the fight against COVID-19, and we can do it, but only if New Yorkers stay smart,” Cuomo said.
Researchers say small indoor gatherings are a major contributor to the spread of the virus. “I think we want to be careful about blaming one particular environment and scapegoating one particular setting for generating transmission,” one epidemiologist, Dr. John Brownstein, told ABC News last month. But, he said, “informal gatherings may have played even the biggest role, because they are harder to police, they’re harder to enforce, and people are probably more lax when it comes to recommendations of mask wearing and social distancing.”
And just because someone has recovered from COVID doesn’t mean they still can’t be reinfected unknowingly and spread it to others. Around the holidays, experts at MIT Medical said: “From what we know of other viruses, most experts think it’s likely that most people who recover from COVID-19 have some level of immunity for some period of time. But we don’t know how much immunity they have or how long it lasts.”
“This holiday season, there’s no safe way to get together with people outside of your own household or bubble,” they added.
Arty Dozortsev, a distributor who supplies wine and caviar for the wealthy’s social gatherings, said he brought his buffet of IKRAA caviar, vino and tequila as a gift to Verglas. Dozortsev said he prepared the spread for 20 to 25 people.
Dozortsev suggested the city is forcing people to host their own parties because officials shut down indoor dining in the city. “It’s a natural habitat of people; they want to go out,” he said.
In an Instagram story, Dozortsev set up the drinks and surveyed the empty room. “The calm before the storm,” Dozortsev says in the footage.
“I knew there was gonna be a lot of people,” Dozortsev told The Daily Beast. “The few people I know who were not wearing masks, they told me they already had COVID, that they went through it and all that,” Dozortsev said.
“Everybody was wearing masks in the beginning,” he said. “We left early, so I’m not sure how the night progressed.”