- As countries around the world grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, the richest ZIP code in the US – a private island off the coast of Miami – has snapped up 1,800 antibody tests for its residents and staff.
- Business Insider talked to Fisher Island staff and residents, parsed through reports from news outlets, and viewed letters signed by the island’s medical director to piece together the story of how the island obtained antibody tests as the rest of the country reports testing shortages.
- According to The New York Times, the island paid the University of Miami Health System (UHealth) $17 per test for 1,800 tests, for a total of $30,600.
- Residents and essential workers on the island have said that testing has already begun, and that aside from stepping outside to get tested or to pick up essentials, people spend the rest of their time hunkered down in $3 million condos.
- In a statement, Lisa Worley, a spokesperson for UHealth, acknowledged that the purchase might have created the impression that certain communities would receive preferential treatment for the tests.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The only way to get to the richest place in the US is by ferry – or private yacht, if you have one.
As a 39-year-old father of two who lives on Fisher Island told Business Insider, “Living on the island has one benefit: No one you don’t want can come inside. The ferry is the only way in.” The resident works in the car industry and didn’t wish to be named.
Fisher Island, a 216-acre members-only island off the coast of Miami, is home to 800 families with an average income of $2.2 million, making it the wealthiest ZIP code in the US, according to Bloomberg.
The island community, which celebrated its 100th birthday last year, rose to prominence in the late 1920s. According to island lore (and the island’s about page), a Vanderbilt acquired seven acres of Fisher Island land in 1927 by trading his 250-foot yacht to land owner Carl Fisher for the parcel. It has since become a haven for real-estate developers, finance bigwigs, high-powered litigation attorneys, and CEOs who live in nearly 30 luxury condominium buildings, where residences sell from $2 million to upwards of $40 million.
According to local health authorities, more than half the population is over the age of 60 – making the community especially vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.
An island unto itself, but still vulnerable to a global pandemic
To live on the island, residents pay a one-time fee of $250,000 to the Fisher Island Club – but only about 30% of members live on the island year-round, Dora Puig, Miami-Dade county’s top real-estate agent by sales volume, told Business Insider last year.
Once you’re on the island, the preferred mode of transportation is golf cart – preferably customized. Every resident who moves into Palazzo Del Sol or Palazzo Della Luna, two of the island’s most luxurious condominium buildings, is given a custom $20,000 Garia golf cart.
The speed limit is 19 miles per hour, and that’s not the only way life moves slowly on the island. Residents and guests can spend their time sipping cocktails by the pool at the beach club, getting cellulite-sculpting body treatments in the spa, or lounging on private beaches with sand imported from the Bahamas. The sand is raked every morning.
When Business Insider visited the island in 2019 and was fittingly treated to a golf cart tour of the premises, we found it in pristine condition, though oddly devoid of life and personality alike. The tennis courts were empty. The beach was deserted. The $16 million condo we toured was designed with clean lines and outfitted with unsurprising beige touches. Because most residents don’t live on Fisher Island year-round, there are often more employees on the island than staff, Lauren Marks, former marketing coordinator for two of the luxury developments on the island, told us. The biggest signs of life were the peacocks freely roaming the manicured lawns.
But even a place as idyllic as Fisher Island can’t stay totally sequestered from a global pandemic. As the coronavirus spread across the US, the island shuttered its luxe amenities. It closed its doors to outside visitors on March 17. A week later, Miami issued a shelter-in-place order.
On April 13, Fisher Island exploded onto the national news scene when Charles Rabin and Aaron Leibowitz of the Miami Herald reported that the island had obtained coronavirus antibody testing for all of its residents and staff. What unfolded over the next four days was a spotlight on the ultrawealthy Florida enclave that raised outrage from local officials, but, more than anything, highlighted yet another way in which money is making all the difference in how people in America are weathering the coronavirus pandemic.
Here’s everything we know about the status of coronavirus testing on Fisher Island.
Coronavirus comes to Florida
Fisher Island is a part of Miami-Dade County, but the timeline of events throughout March and early April shows the island reacted more quickly to the spread of the virus than the mainland parts of the county did.
The first confirmed coronavirus case in Florida was reported on March 1. The first confirmed coronavirus case in Miami-Dade County was reported on March 11. And on March 19, Fisher Island confirmed its first positive case of coronavirus to residents, according to island-wide correspondence sent by Fisher Island Community Association management and viewed by Business Insider. On the same day, Florida had a total of over 400 confirmed cases.
The following day, March 20, Fisher Island began limiting access to the island and running a two-ferry schedule instead of its typical three-ferry schedule. It had already shuttered its luxe amenities like its Bahamian-sand beaches and stopped allowing nonessential visitors on March 17, the same day DeSantis closed Florida restaurants.
Throughout the month of March, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had been criticized for being slow to respond to the spread. On March 17, he called for the closure of gyms and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery, but famously let spring breakers party on by refusing to shut down the beaches or implement a statewide stay-at-home order.
On April 1, DeSantis finally issued a statewide stay-at-home order.
Fisher Island buys 1,800 coronavirus antibody tests for $30,600
On April 13, The Miami Herald reported that Fisher Island had purchased thousands of antibody-detecting rapid blood tests from the University of Miami Health System (UHealth) – enough to test all 800 families and 400 employees on the island.
At the time, Lisa Worley, a UHealth spokesperson, told the Herald, “This is what the Fisher Island residents wanted.”
According to The New York Times, Fisher Island bought 1,800 antibody tests that cost $17 each from UHealth, for a total of $30,600. For comparison, residents pay the island annual dues of $20,651.
The antibody tests purchased by the island are different from the typical nasal swab coronavirus tests, which only test for current infection and take days to process. The fingerprick test – which provides results within 15 minutes – detects antibodies the body creates to fight off the virus. It can determine if someone has already had the coronavirus and may be immune to it.
While these antibody tests are already widely in use in China and South Korea, they are still being developed in the US and are difficult to secure. In short, the antibody tests are a class above the regular tests that are already in short supply around the country. One might even call them elite.
According to an April 7 letter to Fisher Island residents that was viewed by Business Insider and signed by Dr. Elizabeth Greig, medical director of UHealth Fisher Island, the tests would be used to “monitor how spread occurs in a nearly contained environment, unlike anywhere else in the world.” Greig neither confirmed nor denied to Business Insider that she had written the letter.
Testing on the island, the letter detailed, would serve as a foil to a recent UHealth and Miami-Dade County partnership: As of April 3, a separate new program would randomly test 750 people across Miami-Dade County per week to assess how far the coronavirus has spread in South Florida.
Participation would be voluntary, according to the letter, and testing would take place “building by building.”
In an April 14 statement emailed to Business Insider, Worley, the UHealth spokesperson, explained the factors taken into consideration pertaining to the island’s request: “One of the first confirmed cases of coronavirus in Miami-Dade County was on Fisher Island, more than half of the population is over 60 and many residents were returning from the Northeast.”
Testing on the island is ‘extremely well set up’
The first people on Fisher Island were tested on April 6, and 1,250 residents and staff have been tested so far, island spokesperson Sissy DeMaria confirmed to Business Insider. DeMaria did not have a breakdown of how many residents versus employees had been tested.
Elena Bluntzer, a real-estate agent who lives on the island, told Business Insider on April 14 that she had already gotten the test at the island’s UHealth clinic.
“It’s just a finger prick,” she said. “You go and make an appointment along with everybody else and it’s set up in such a way that there is a lot of social distancing.”
“It’s extremely well set up,” Bluntzer said, adding that no one she knew of had received a positive test result.
The island currently has somewhere between five and nine confirmed coronavirus cases, according to Florida’s Department of Health coronavirus cases map. There are more than 7,800 cases in Miami-Dade County and upwards of 22,000 cases in the state of Florida. In an April 15 press conference, Gov. Ron DeSantis said that one out of every 103 people in the state had been tested. In southeast Florida, he added, “one in every 80 or maybe 85 Floridians in those heavily affected counties” had been tested.
Daniel Azoulay, a 74-year-old art and fashion photographer who has lived on the island for 29 years, told the Times that he got the test on Friday. He said he knew that the test wouldn’t reveal whether or not he’s immune to the virus. His housekeeper also got tested, he said.
The 39-year-old father who lives on the island said neither he and his daughters nor his household staff had taken the test because none of them had any symptoms.
“We feel safe,” he told Business Insider. “Having test kits available is a plus. We hope we don’t need them, but regardless [they’re] an advantage.”
Bluntzer, who says she’s lived on the island since 1997, said that residents have been sheltering in their homes and taking all precautions seriously. She noted that people on Fisher Island are leaving their homes for the same, limited number of reasons as people elsewhere. Simply: “Order food from one of the restaurants or the market, and you pick it up, you take it home, and you go back to sheltering in place,” she said.
Five of Fisher Island’s six restaurants are open for pickup or delivery, and residents can also pick up staples and prepared foods at the Island Market.
“Everybody here is very aware that this is a very serious pandemic and nobody lives in a bubble,” Bluntzer said. “It’s not any different here than it is anywhere else.”
Backlash and repercussions: on the island
In the days following the Miami Herald’s initial story, the island’s residents seemed to retreat back from the spotlight that had been cast on them.
Business Insider attempted to reach club employees, healthcare workers in Fisher Island’s UHealth outpost, public safety officers, and restaurant workers. In nearly every case, we either did not immediately receive a response or were directed to Sissy DeMaria, the island spokesperson, for comment. One island staff member reached by telephone said she was not allowed to speak to anyone about Fisher Island. The lack of response encountered is in line with a since-deleted section of a Miami Herald report, in which island residents noted that the story was too sensitive to discuss.
Two media reports pointed towards a wave of philanthropy among island residents. One resident donated $200,000 to the Rabinowitz Charitable Foundation to provide similar antibody testing for “hard hit areas in Miami,” according to the Times. And DeMaria told CNN that the island’s philanthropic fund had contributed $150,000 to various relief organizations.
In an April 14 statement to Business Insider, Worley acknowledged that Fisher Island’s having obtained the coronavirus antibody tests “may have created the impression that certain communities would receive preferential treatment.” The statement noted that UHealth was now “revising its process for reviewing testing outreach requests.”
Backlash and repercussions: off the island
Off the island, outrage spread swiftly across social media.
As one Twitter user wrote, “Fisher Island, FL to be renamed Elysium. “Elysium,” which means paradise, is also the name of a 2013 dystopian film starring Matt Damon. The movie, set in 2154, depicts the rich and powerful living aboard an idyllic luxe space station, while those left to live on Earth’s ruins execute a plan to attack it. Others chimed in with similar sentiments, saying the island’s purchase was a shameful illustration of disparity.
Following the headlines, local leaders, too, began to weigh in.
Miami-Dade County, in partnership with UHealth, rolled out a blood testing program to gauge how far the coronavirus has spread on April 3. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez was quick to distance the county’s research from Fisher Island’s testing. “Our program has no intersection with whatever they are doing,” Gimenez told The Herald.
Separately, Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho took to Twitter to voice his disapproval of Fisher Island’s antibody tests purchase. “I cannot reconcile the shoeless, mask-less, hungry children we fed today with this [Fisher Island] headline,” he wrote.
His school system has distributed over half a million meals to families all over the district, according to an April 8 statement. The superintendent’s office later told Business Insider that $5 would provide breakfast and lunch for one child – meaning that Fisher Island’s purchase could provide more than 6,000 children with two meals.
In an April 15 press conference – two days after the Herald’s first story on antibody testing on Fisher Island – DeSantis was asked about the noticeable lack of testing in underserved communities. He said that walk-up testing had begun near public housing units in Jacksonville.
He also expressed the necessity for more rapid blood tests before reopening the state, and noted that Abbott Laboratories, one of the biggest healthcare companies to enter the US market for antibody tests so far, is ramping up production of the tests. He said those rapid tests would go to “first responders, hospitals, nurses, and doctors” first.
Money is making all the difference in how people are weathering the pandemic
That a private island full of wealthy people can buy thousands of coronavirus antibody tests underscores a trend being seen across the US: The coronavirus is a whole different pandemic for the ultrarich.
This trend was apparent as early in the virus’ spread as the first weeks of March. Within hours of a player for the NBA’s Utah Jazz testing positive for the virus in Oklahoma City, the team obtained 58 tests for the other players and personnel. The 58 tests constituted 60% of daily testing capacity in the entire state of Oklahoma, according to Robert Silverman at the Daily Beast. Only one of the tests came back positive.
New reports continue to surface nearly every day of celebrities, from Idris Elba and Kris Jenner to NBA players, managing to get tested without showing symptoms. In some cases, it’s because they’re hiring concierge doctors to test them in their homes.
The wealthy have fled dense cities like New York City and Seattle to shelter in their vacation homes in desired locales like the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard, and the Western resort town of Jackson, Wyoming.
Meanwhile, for ordinary Americans, getting tested is still nearly impossible. The US is experiencing a shortage of testing materials, leaving it to fall behind every other developed nation in the rate of tests performed per capita.
While some have called the coronavirus “the great equalizer,” Fisher Island has proved to be yet another example of how differently a pandemic is experienced by the rich and the poor.
The 39-year-old father, whose primary home is in the Miami suburb of Pinecrest and who considers Fisher Island his second home, told Business Insider he was happy with how the island was handling the lockdown and the antibody testing.
“To most people [on the island], they think it’s cool to have that as an advantage,” he said. “And from what I read, others think it is a rich privilege. I didn’t know it was looked down upon to be wealthy.”