The men sported tuxedos, the women extravagant evening gowns. They crowded into Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, unmasked and without any pretence at social distancing. After cocktails and a luxurious dinner, the partygoers danced in the new year to the live music of rapper Vanilla Ice and Beach Boy veterans.
“We shouldn’t be caged in our homes,” said Amber Gitter, a local estate agent who attended. No government should “tell you that you have to stay in and can’t work”.
Once Trump leaves the White House this week, the two-times impeached president is expected to reside at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida. It’s an unhappy prospect for many Palm Beachers who fear Trump’s presence and maskless Mar-a-Lago soirees will undermine the tiny town’s tranquility and its fight against the pandemic. The display of unbridled wealth and partying at Mar-a-Lago highlights the awkward and ugly reality of a rich elite that continues to party while its poor working-class neighbours struggle to survive.
Nestled on an island off the coast of Florida, Palm Beach is a fixture for America’s 1%. Tree-lined South Ocean Boulevard, which runs past Mar-a-Lago, is nicknamed billionaire’s row, the site of some of the world’s ritziest beachside mansions. Residents include cosmetic heiress Aerin Lauder, billionaire financier Stephen Schwarzman and, notoriously, the now-deceased convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Trump is not even the wealthy community’s first experience with presidents – John F Kennedy used his family’s property as a winter White House.
Trump divides his future hometown’s residents, as he does all Americans. While he won the town’s vote in the 2020 presidential election and more than 500 followers paid a reported $1,000 a ticket to attend the Mar-a-Lago new year party, the president has feuded with neighbours and local officials. In 2006, Trump erected a giant flagpole at Mar-a-Lago, which violated local zoning rules. The town began fining him $1,250 a day. Trump sued and kept his flagpole. Mar-a-Lago declined to comment on either the dispute or its maskless parties.
During Trump’s Mar-a-Lago presidential visits, dozens of police and secret service officers protected the property. Barricades blocked off the main road, creating traffic jams. A group of angry neighbours has sought legal advice to block him from living at Mar-a-Lago full-time, the Washington Post first reported.
Trump bought the baroque Moorish-style mansion overlooking the ocean in 1985. When he turned the estate into a social club in 1993, Trump agreed to ban members from staying at the compound for more than 21 days a year. Residents are demanding that the town government enforce thisagreement. Palm Beach town manager Kirk Blouin told the Observer that the council will review the matter during next month’s meeting.
Covid has driven another schism between Trump and locals. Unlike the president, town officials took the pandemic seriously from the start. They began keeping tabs on the virus as early as January last year, says Blouin. When it proliferated in mid-March, the town imposed a curfew, shut restaurants, shops, beaches, and apartment pools. Even Mar-a-Lago was shuttered. We wanted “to bang the pots and pans to alert people and our neighbouring cities that the virus is coming – and it’s going to be really bad,” Blouin added. “Many thought we’d overreacted.”
The hardline action saved lives. Despite an elderly population – two-thirds of the town’s residents are over 65, according to the US Census – Palm Beach counted only 26 confirmed Covid-19 cases and two deaths during the pandemic’s first two months. By contrast, despite its young population, working-class Palm Beach County counted a similar proportion by population of casualties: 5,429 confirmed cases and 315 deaths, according to data from the Palm Beach Civic Association. “There has been, from the beginning, one pandemic for the rich, and one for everyone else,” complains Omari Hardy, a Democratic state lawmaker who represents swathes of Palm Beach County.
While Palm Beachers hunker down in their luxury homes, poorer Floridians need to go out to work. “My constituents have to choose between two evils,” says Hardy. “If they can work, they are exposing themselves to the risk of contracting the virus. If they can’t go to work, they cannot earn an income.”
There has been, from the very beginning, one pandemic for the rich, and one pandemic for everyone else.
Omari Hardy, state lawmaker
At Lupita’s, a taco restaurant across the water in Lake Worth, co-owner Roberto Alvarez says he is “struggling”. He dipped into his personal savings to pay his staff last week. In contrast, Palm Beach’s luxury real estate market has boomed. During the first quarter of 2020, as millions of Americans filed for unemployment, sales of single-family homes in Palm Beach soared to a record $416m, a 168% increase over the same period in the previous year, according to a study. Just before New Year, Sylvester Stallone reportedly paid $35m for a seven-bedroom, 12-bathroom estate.
Big-bucks buyers fled Covid-infested areas like New York City for the sunshine and beach, says local estate agent Scott Gordon. Trump’s 2017 tax reforms, which raises tax on wealthy individuals in states like New York, turns Florida and its low tax rate into an enticing home.
During the pandemic, Palm Beachers have quarantined in luxury. When the beachfront Four Seasons hotel closed in March, Citadel Securities rented the entire establishment for its stock traders. Only employees of the firm or hotel were allowed inside, with private security guarding the property. Ten months later, the resort remains guarded. The hotel will only begin taking reservations in early April, a hotel spokesperson said.
Now, though, this pandemic paradise is fraying. Since Florida’s Trump-supporting governor Ron DeSantis lifted most restrictions in September, Palm Beach shops, restaurants, and bars have opened, for indoor and outdoor seating, and they draw big crowds. Since November, the town has recorded a faster rise in cases than in Palm Beach County, according to local government data. The local population of 8,800 soars in winter, as northerners escape the cold, raising the chances of contact and infections, according to Blouin. He also blames “corona fatigue”, explaining that some residents are fed up with rules and restrictions. “We’re social animals,” he concedes.
Mar-a-Lago is ground zero for breaking the rules. It hosted a maskless, indoor election night party, a fashion show, and a rowdy young conservatives party. After the new year party, county officials sent a warning letter last week to Mar-a-Lago for a “breakdown in enforcement” of the mask mandate. But few believe Trump will listen. “A strongly worded letter will not do anything to get the president and his businesses to comply,” Hardy said. “He’s shown nothing but disdain for our rules.”