As It Happens

California entrepreneur defends idea for remote COVID-19 'escape community'

The website shows dreamy photographs of people having dinner parties, laughing together in a hot tub and doing yoga in groups — all the sorts of things we’re supposed to avoid in the age of COVID-19.

Public health experts sound alarm about coronavirus retreats popping up in the U.S.

A man bikes through a deserted Beverly Hills, Calif., during the COVID-19 crisis. (Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images)
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Transcripts

It's being billed as a "modern-day escape community" for people who are tired of being cooped up alone at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

It's called "Haven" and it's one of several coronavirus retreats that have been popping up in remote U.S. communities, much to the worry of public health officials. 

For a minimum of $750 US a month, people can wait out the pandemic together in an undisclosed Northern California ghost town. 

The website shows dreamy photographs of people having dinner parties, laughing together in a hot tub and doing yoga in groups — but Haven's founder says residents will undergo health screenings and abide by physical distancing measures.

Still, health experts say that if just one person becomes infected, they could easily spread it to the whole group.

"There are so many potential risk factors here," Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, told tech magazine The Information, which published a feature about the COVID-19 retreat phenomenon.  

Haven is the brainchild of Jane Dinh, CEO of the travel company Jetters. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

We keep hearing that the best way to fight COVID-19 is to isolate ourselves, to stay at home. Isn't that good advice?

It definitely is, yes.

Do you agree with it yourself?

I do. I do. And I also think it's also great to stay home with people you can really connect with as well, whether it's your family or your boyfriend or a roommate. As long as there is social distancing involved as well.

But you are planning something quite large, don't you?

Yes, but it is pretty much like a town where everyone has their own cabana or their own cabin as well. So here's social distancing involved in this.

These are not with your closest friends. These are with people who will pay to go to this retreat, right?

It's actually being spread through, like, friends and friends of friends. So right now, it's like with my community, yes.

A man walks near the gate on the closed Manhattan Beach Pier after Los Angeles issued a stay-at-home order and closed beaches and state parks, as the spread of the coronavirus continues. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

And how do you propose to make this work?

We actually are working with the town owner for this. So we have, like, one-month minimum stays, and people can actually stay for as long as a year. 

So this isn't considered a trip or a retreat. It's actually a move. And moving residences is actually allowed under the shelter-in-place mandates in California.

And you can rent this entire town?

Yes, because this town is actually normally rented out for retreats and weddings and corporate events. 

Usually before, the owner only rented out for events. But this is the first time that she actually wants to use her town for residential purposes.

How many people do you propose will join you in this Haven?

A few dozen. 

Do they go back and forth to do their shopping, to get their own groceries?

Oh, no, no, definitely not. So we try to make this as sustainable as possible. So we've already just ordered a bulk order of food. So there's not going to be that many deliveries coming in and out. 

We also do not allow people to come in and out of the town. So, you know, once you get there, you have to stay there for at least a month. And we also don't allow, like, outside residents to come in as well.

We have our own garden, too, to produce our own produce. We have 50 chickens and ducks as well.

An aerial drone view of an empty Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park during the coronavirus pandemic San Francisco, Calif. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

You say that no one be allowed in and people won't be going out. How do you police that? How will you keep your borders safe in this Haven?

There's actually only one way into the town, and we also have a security guard monitoring the entrance.

Once you're there, you're there?

You're there. I mean, you can leave after a month. Or, let's say, like, if you come in and you decide it's not for you, you can leave, of course. But if you leave, you can't come back. So we're not going to hold anyone hostage.

How can you be sure that you're not going to have COVID-19 inside your community?

We don't market this as, like, a risk-free kind of thing because, you know, there's so many unknowns about COVID-19. 

There's always going to be a chance, but what we can say is that we take as many precautions as you can. So it's a lower risk environment. There's always a chance. But where we have a lot of precautions in place.

But you have dozens of people who are going to come to this community, this small place, to live. If you have an outbreak of coronavirus, if you have the virus in your community, who do you turn to? Who's going to have to take care of the people in your community?

We actually have enough extra housing to … quarantine those who have been affected and those who have been in close contact with these people.

We have an emergency physician who has offered to give us telemedicine services for anyone who's been affected. 

We also have backup oxygen concentrators in case nearby hospitals are overwhelmed. 

For the very serious cases, we are still within driving distance to a hospital nearby.

But we know that a large number of people get very sick and need to go to hospital with that. So what burden are you going to place on a rural hospital and community, the neighboring community, if you have an outbreak?

The age of our community — we don't discriminate by age — but it tends to be people who are more on, like, the millennial side. So it's we're not going to have as many cases as a normal aged population where it's, like, older family. 

You know, it's a myth, right, that this is something that just happens to older people?

Oh definitely. It does happen to anyone at any age. 

Are you breaking any laws in California given that you have a shelter-in-place order?

No, because the shelter-in-place order actually allows people to still move residences. Since this is a 30-day minimum and you can stay for as long as a year, it's considered a move. 

And still also require people to practice social distancing as well. You know, you still have to stay six feet apart from each other while shelter in place is, you know, mandated.

And yet, [according to your website], you're going to have … lively dinners, speakers, workshops, music, meetings, celebrations and games. So how does that social distancing work?

The dinners are still, like, social distanced, you know. You'll still be far apart. And any workshops will also be, like, social distanced as well.

And we limit the amount of people. 

[Editor's Note: After the interview Dinh clarified that Haven won't host any events until after shelter-in-place orders have been lifted, and that her website will be updated soon with more information.]

Do you think that people might regard this as a kind of a something that's a privilege reserved for the wealthy to be able to isolate themselves in a haven like this?

I think definitely they could see it if they don't know the pricing beforehand. But even if the price is too high for someone, we can still work with them, because we definitely don't want someone  … to really want to join if they're a good fit for a community and they can't because of costs.


Written by Sheena Goodyear and Jeanne Armstrong. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.