The Great Influencer Exodus

Prominent Instagram influencers are getting dragged for fleeing New York, showing their millions of followers what not to do during a pandemic

The Great Influencer Exodus
Photo by Arthur Osipyan / Unsplash

Originally published in GEN

This weekend, Naomi Davis, an influencer with nearly half a million Instagram followers, announced that she and her family were leaving their Upper West Side apartment, getting into an RV, and traveling west. She said they were escaping locked-down New York for the sake of her family’s mental health and to find outdoor space for her children. Davis stressed they chose an RV so they could avoid hotels and people. After weeks of officials asking New Yorkers to self-quarantine and just hours before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended a 14-day statewide quarantine, her family left the city.

The reasons we all need to just stay home are well documented by now. Asymptomatic carriers can spread the virus. Patient 31 in South Korea proved that it takes just one carrier to infect thousands with the novel coronavirus. People traveling from New York aren’t just putting others at risk—they are also endangering themselves. Even RVs with full refrigerators need to stop at gas stations and therefore risk picking up the virus along their journey. The virus isn’t the only danger; there are stories about people with New York license plates being threatened with violence when they descend upon already exhausted towns.

Davis is not the only influencer escaping from New York. Ali Maffucci of Inspiralized, a site dedicated to spiralizing vegetables, told her roughly 202,000 followers that she too was leaving the New York metro area with her family. In her post, Maffucci said, “All we can do is what we’re doing 👉🏼 what’s best for our family ❤️⁣.” Arielle Charnas, a fashion influencer with more than 1.3 million Instagram followers, left for a rental home in the Hamptons on March 26, eight days after testing positive for Covid-19. She told followers she would donate her antibody-rich plasma once she’d been symptom-free for 14 days, a milestone she hadn’t hit before leaving for Long Island.

Imagine if just 1% of Davis’ followers see her Instagram post and decide to “think bigger picture” and stop sheltering in place.

The three women form a triangle of influence: They make money by telling people how to live, eat, and look. Davis shows her followers a lifestyle to emulate: in bold prints while navigating joyful, color-coordinated messes. Muffucci acts as the internet’s artisan chef; it’s truly amazing how many different ways you can appetizingly spiralize a vegetable. Charnas embodies the IG look; after I scrolled through her feed, I was very nearly convinced I could pull off a pair of Bassike paper bag pants. They are personal brands with product lines and partnerships with national companies. But they are also people. They are mothers — mothers who live in a city in such turmoil that the Empire State Building has been turned into a siren. The cough was coming from down the (doorman-protected) hall, and they were afraid.

I get it. I’ve lived in cities with my children for years. I know how quickly vibrant streets can close in and feel violent. I know from experience that living in a small space with lots of babies can feel oppressive even in the most filtered of times. I understand why Davis rented that RV. Of course her family wanted to run away. Who wouldn’t want to at least consider leaving New York? Covid-related deaths across the city are climbing. Recently, the Javits Center was turned into a 2,910-bed hospital for the influx of severe coronavirus cases expected over the next few weeks.

But Davis is not just another anonymous worried mother. She has a huge platform that’s only growing. In December, she signed a book deal for a collection of self-help essays, sure to be bolstered by her ready readership of devoted Instagram followers. Davis and her husband maintain a beautifully arranged apartment in New York City with the money she earns from her ability to connect and convince.

Davis’ followers trust her. They love her. They sit in on Davis family breakfasts and celebrate their anniversaries. They follow her in every sense of the word. So when Davis posts a photo of her family getting into an RV to leave town because, as she told one follower, she’s thinking “bigger picture with my little ones,” she is telling her hundreds of thousands of devotees that it’s somehow acceptable to ignore the rules that would keep everyone safe.She is saying that thinking bigger means thinking of your own children to the detriment of others’ children. The consequences can be dire.

The coronavirus is exposing all of us. Some to the danger of failing institutions. Others, to privilege.

A pandemic is not the time to go on a road trip. Shelter-in-place orders exist because, right now, our homes are the safest places in America. Even the most meticulous travelers can spread or pick up the coronavirus on a 2,000-mile journey. A car accident or medical emergency is difficult under the best circumstances; it can turn tragic quickly in an unfamiliar place during the middle of an outbreak. Surely Davis thought about the risks to her family before she decided to get into the RV. I wonder if she thought about the risks to her followers before she posted the picture. Imagine if just 1% of Davis’ followers see her Instagram post and decide to “think bigger picture” and stop sheltering in place. That kind of engagement coupled with Covid-19 rates of transmission and mortality leads to some pretty bleak return on investment. Reflecting on the spread of Covid-19 amid the jet set, Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote, “Wealth is a vector.” Influence is also a vector.

The coronavirus is exposing all of us. Some of us to the danger of failing institutions. Others, to the privilege we share in our ability to work outside those institutions. Only the elite can get tested, and only the elite can escape this virus. To see how the wealthy are leaning into their influence to ride out the pandemic, just look at billionaire David Geffen’s yacht that’s sailing the Caribbean.

Since Davis publicly left New York, she’s been labeled “privileged.” But I am an upper-middle-class white woman, and so most of her privileges are mine as well. Outside of more exotic travel and much better clothes, what privilege does someone like Davis have that I do not? Maybe just one: the privilege of someone who has an entire community built solely around and upon themselves. If you are the center of your community, you’ll always center yourself. It must be heady, but it also must be heavy. Empires topple the moment the influencer missteps and we all shrug in disgust and walk away.

We are all going to get parts of living through this pandemic wrong. I feel for Davis, I know it’s hard to be wrong online. She responded to the surging uproar on Sunday in her Instagram stories by admitting that like most of us living in these uncertain times, she’s afraid: “I don’t know if this explanation helps but I am trying to do my best to take care of my kids and my family.” When I read those words, my two-year-old was sitting in my lap. She had her fingers curled around my thumb and moved both our hands back and forth, back and forth. I know Davis’ babies hold her hands the same way. Her response was sincere. But sincerity isn’t always enough. I wish she had apologized, taken ownership of her actions, and pledged to donate her sponsorship money to those who truly need it, especially now.

Influencers don’t need to be a casualty of this panicked moment. They just need to live up to what they’ve already built. Every number in their follower count is a person. And right now, each of those people is at risk. Community has to begin to mean more than the number of impressions they can count on for a sponsored post. Their influence — and our lives — depend on it.