CRESTVIEW — Residents of Crestview’s Sister City, Noirmoutier, France, relish the peace and solitude of the winter and spring low tourist season.
Just two weeks ago, the island’s 10,000 residents were strolling the golden sand beaches, walking in the forests, poking through community markets, and meeting friends at restaurants and cafés.
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Within two days that pastoral way of life abruptly changed.
France announced measures to control the coronavirus’ rapid spread would go into effect March 17. Facing travel restrictions and mandated self-isolation, thousands of primarily city dwellers, many from Paris, fled west to their summer homes on Noirmoutier.
“Parisians are essential to the economic life of the island, for sure,” said Lucas Charier, who visited Crestview in 2015 with a contingent of Noirmoutrin students. “But they flocked to the island to confine themselves in a more pleasant place than the city.
“The problem is that the population has tripled from 10,000 inhabitants. We have grown to 30,000. There is no more pasta, toilet paper or meat in our supermarkets.”
There’s also another problem. While residents close their businesses and self-isolate, the out-of-towners are treating their evacuation as a vacation.
“You can see they do not take the containment very seriously,” said Dylan Petigas, whose family has one of the island’s salt “marshes,” which produce Noirmoutier’s famous high-grade sea salt. “I saw when I went out to get my groceries a guy just getting beach supplies to have fun with his kids. Some visitors are very inconsiderate.”
“That's something that bothers me,” said Noël Meunier, a leader of the island’s maritime and fishing industries who has visited Crestview and, with his wife Béatrice, hosted Crestview visitors in Noirmoutier last September.
“We sailors have to pack up our equipment and go home, and then we see people happily promenading around on a bike with the family,” he added7. “But we are being told to be locked in! I won’t have it!”
Starting March 18, the National Gendarmerie set up controls to limit access to and from Noirmoutier island, according to the Courrier Vendéen regional newspaper. Travel is prohibited except only with a travel certificate for limited outings, such as to buy food and medicine.
By Saturday, the island’s Municipal Police and Gendarmerie officers started issuing citations to people who violate the self-isolation mandate, Petigas said. That’s good news to Charier, a medical student at the main hospital in nearby Nantes on the mainland. The visitors’ disregard of the rules poses a danger, he said.
“The number of (COVID-19) cases on the island risks increasing considerably if they are not isolated,” Charier said. “They think that it is the holidays, with strolls on the beach and in the street, but it is not!”
Already the island has 30 possible cases of the virus, but Noirmoutier only has a few small clinics and no hospital.
“The main problem is the lack of health personnel,” Charrier said.
“We had no (coronavirus) disease prior to the people with vacation homes coming,” Petigas added. “We do not have a lot of health resources on the island. We do not have a lot of doctors, and the hospital in Challans (the closest hospital) is not very big and does not have a lot of beds.”
Tensions ran high for normally hospitable Noirmoutrins as hundreds of cars, many with the Paris “75” license plate code, arrived on the island right before the March 17 self-confinement deadline. Several vehicles from outside Vendée county were vandalized, FranceBleu public radio reported.
Noirmoutier Mayor Noël Faucher, who is also president of the island’s Council of Communities, called the vandalism “a real misunderstanding by the islanders, faced with this influx, which risks exploding the health system,” according to FranceBleu.
Faucher made a point of reminding the incomers that confinement was "not the holidays," and that it was required that they stay in their island homes.
For professional photographer and videographer Mickaël Dailly, confinement at home means no opportunities to stroll the forests and beaches of the island with his cameras to share his evocative imagery on his Noirmoutier 360° Facebook page.
But, he noted, he is more fortunate than the city dwellers. He has a backyard where he can play with his 3-year-old son, Lenny.
“I can imagine this is only the beginning of this crisis and we are in for a long period of isolation for everyone,” Dailly said. “Unfortunately, I'm not allowed to go out at all for a minimum of two weeks. I'm allowed out only if I've got a dog, but can go no farther than 400 meters (437 yards) from home.”
But for Lenny, whose nursery school is closed, it is a great opportunity to play at home with his dad.
“We have a garden and sun. He is very happy to be at home,” Dailly said. “He loves it.”