- Courtney Malenius, of Brooklyn, New York, and seven of her neighbors attended the season 46 premiere of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” last weekend.
- The group had to self-administer rapid COVID-19 tests, remain separated in pods, and wear masks.
- One public-health expert told Insider he would’ve attended the show given the safety precautions, while another said she wouldn’t feel comfortable being inside for that long, even with masks and pods.
- Following coronavirus guidelines that say TV programs can have live audiences consisting of employees, cast, and crew only, Malenius and her friends each got $150 for attending the taping.
- “I didn’t think we were being sneaky. Whether or not the show was, I don’t know,” Malenius said about the money.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Courtney Malenius and seven of her neighbors piled into a couple of Uber XLs on Saturday to take the half-hour drive from downtown Brooklyn to midtown Manhattan.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic that’s shut down much of New York since March, the eight Brooklyn, New York residents decided to try to establish a sense of normality by attending the season 46 premiere of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”
Once the epicenter of the pandemic — where more than 23,800 residents have died from the virus — New York has taken a conservative approach to reopening businesses, even as the number of active cases in the city remains low. Broadway, for example, is still shuttered.
Malenius has been cautious too.
“There was just some trepidation about getting to the city,” the 38-year-old director of admissions at New York University’s film school and self-proclaimed “die-hard ‘SNL’ fan,” told Insider. “We decided that we would spend a little extra money and take a few Ubers together.”
Days before, Malenius had applied for tickets through a casting and fan-engagement agency called 1iota. The “SNL” webpage, which has since been taken down, had slots for groups of seven, eight, or nine people.
“First, I had to stop and think, ‘Well, who am I close with that would feel comfortable in a close environment setting?'” she said.
Malenius texted seven neighbors in her building — people she met through play dates for their dogs — to form an eight-person pod.
“We’d become even closer during quarantine because in the beginning we were doing our essential shopping trips together, sharing PPE, and other fun essential goods,” she added.
The admissions director received an email on Friday confirming they’d been chosen to attend the live taping inside Studio 8H, where former “SNL” cast member Chris Rock served as guest host and Megan Thee Stallion performed.
The email contained forms that the group had to sign, indicating that they didn’t knowingly have COVID-19, hadn’t been around anyone who tested positive, and didn’t have any tell-tale symptoms of the coronavirus.
The newly formed pod was required to self-administer a rapid COVID-19 test on arrival and receive a negative result before entering the studio.
While inside, the pod adhered to social-distancing guidelines, keeping at least 6 feet away from guests outside their group and agreeing to wear masks throughout the taping — no bandanas, gators, or masks with vents were permitted.
Health experts told Insider they had mixed feelings about these precautions, which were in line with New York’s state media-production health guidelines for the pandemic. The social pods, they agreed, were a good idea.
“If you’re podding people with people they’ve already interacted with, you’re doing rapid tests, and you’re doing some symptom screening, it does limit the risk,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, told Insider.
As a “very risk-tolerant person” and a doctor who cares for patients with the virus, Adalja said he’d certainly go to a show like this if given the chance.
“If you want something to have zero risk, you’re not going to find it for the next two years. So you have to find things that are going to reduce the harm of the virus. And I think these types of measures are reasonable,” he added.
But epidemiologist and Virginia Tech professor Lisa Lee, a former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention public-health expert, said the precautions at “SNL” wouldn’t be enough for her to consider risking it.
“It’s a 90-minute show,” she told Insider. “That’s a long time to be in the same space with other people if you don’t have to be.”
Malenius recognized the show wasn’t a risk-free evening out on the town, but she felt reassured by the orderly atmosphere and because no one was “doing the chin masks.”
“We see mask-wearing as a sign of respect,” she said. “This was a big moment to say, ‘OK, we’re trying something new, and we’re the guinea pigs a little bit.’ But we feel good about it because everyone around us was taking it as seriously as we were.”
With 24 hours until showtime, Malenius, who previously had to sleep on the 49th Street sidewalk to secure tickets to two “SNL” dress rehearsals, used the time to make handmade masks with “SNL” quotes on them for her pod.
‘It was like the first time we had plans to go out’
Before walking through the 30 Rockefeller Plaza doors, the New York home of NBC, Malenius said there was some nervousness about the experience. Several of her friends decided to wear N95 masks underneath their decorative ones to be extra safe.
“So many of us have been cooped up for many a month,” she said. “For us, it was like the first time we had plans to go out.”
As they entered the lobby, full of excitement mixed with anxiety, they were instructed by NBC employees to stand apart from the other pods.
“I think if we had arrived and the lobby felt chaotic, or people … weren’t observing the rules, I think we would have maybe said, ‘I don’t know if I want to hang out for another three hours,” Malenius said.
The NBC pages, milling around, were wearing masks and face shields, and the staff made the process seamless, she added.
Malenius’ group was eventually shuffled through the lobby, all receiving wristbands named after an “SNL” character. On her wrist dangled the name “Dooneese,” the name of former cast member Kristen Wiig’s recurring character.
Inside, they migrated to the NBC merchandise store where their COVID-19 test awaited.
Medical personnel helped them self-administer a COVID-19 test
A plastic bag held Malenius’ rapid COVID-19 test, which she was instructed to self-administer. Medical professionals sat on the other side of plexiglass barriers, offering instructions on how to do it properly.
Malenius, who was familiar with the process already, having self-administered this kind of test before, said she was told to hold the swab in each nostril for 15 seconds — after sticking it 1.5 inches up.
Lee said she saw this use of rapid tests as somewhat futile.
“Those tests would likely screen out people who were very sick,” the professor and health expert said. “The problem is they don’t screen out people … just starting their infection.”
But Adalja said he felt a scenario like this, where people remained at a distance and wore masks, warranted it.
“You’re not asking, ‘Are they sick?’ You’re asking, ‘Are they contagious to others?’ And that’s where I think contagiousness tests, like these antigen tests, have a role,” he said.
Some of Malenius’ neighbors and friends, who had never self-administered such tests, were “afraid” of how deep they’d need to push the swab up their nose.
Perhaps they’d heard some of the horror stories about the more invasive (and more accurate) laboratory RT-PCR tests for COVID-19, which go much further into the nose and throat, and can even make people faint.
“I think once they all had done it, they were like, ‘Well, that was easy,'” she said.
It took all of 15 minutes to learn that Team Dooneese’s results were all negative. They were a step closer to walking into Studio 8H.
Despite precautions, there were blips
After waiting in the Peacock Lounge, the group was escorted to their seats on the mezzanine by an NBC employee. Malenius said her pod sat “a good deal” from other pods — 6 feet apart, in accordance with the New York State Department of Health.
The groups filed in one by one, but Malenius said there was a bit of confusion when the employees accidentally filled the audience into the studio in the wrong order.
“At one point they realized they had loaded in the studio, almost like how in a plane when you load people in … from the back first and then the front,” she said. “They realized they had done it incorrectly and loaded the people in the front end first. And then they had to get people past them to get to their seats.”
Malenius’ pod was asked to leave their seats and move aside while other pods walked in, to avoid close contact.
Still, the director said she was “impressed by the level of professionalism and the kindness of the pages and the people that were assigned to each station.”
At one point, she asked to leave her pod’s “designated area” to throw away a water bottle. An employee returned shortly after, carrying a trash can.
Malenius also noted that NBC employees limited the number of people in the bathroom “to keep the density down” in a confined space.
During the premiere, many “SNL” cast members wore masks until moments before the cameras started rolling, quickly tossing them to a crew member before the sketch began, the director recalled. Lorne Michaels, the show’s creator and longtime executive producer, wore a mask while checking in on the cast and crew throughout production.
“He would walk from skit to skit and give a thumbs-up to all the actors just to check in and make sure that they felt good before the cameras were rolling. And I just really appreciated that,” she said. “I was like, ‘He’s running the ship.'”
Malenius and her neighbors got checks for $150 on their way out
When the Studio 8H lights came on, Malenius said she was so focused on making it to the gift shop in time she barely thought about the envelope an NBC employee handed her on the way out.
“We all just assumed it was a copy of our COVID results,” she said.
It wasn’t until one of the group members opened the envelope and screamed that the rest of them looked inside. Each had received a check from Universal Television. Malenius said the check had her name on it with her address listed as “30 Rockefeller Plaza.”
In June, the state had released guidelines for media productions that prohibited live audiences unless they consisted “paid employees, cast, and crew.”
The guidelines said that should employees, cast, and crew stand in for a live audience, there could be no more than 100 people or 25% of audience capacity, requiring them to abide by whichever number was lower. Guests also had be 6 feet apart in all directions.
Jonah Bruno, the director of public information at the New York State Department of Health, confirmed to Insider that “SNL” followed the reopening guidelines by finding audience members through a “third-party screening and casting process” and paying them for their time as audience members.
An NBC source also told Insider the show was “working very closely with the DOH and following all of their guidelines.”
“There is no evidence of non-compliance — but if any is discovered, we will refer that to local authorities for follow up,” Bruno said in a statement to Insider.
“I didn’t think we were being sneaky. Whether or not the show was, I don’t know,” Malenius said about the money. “But it’s a clever work-around, if they did have to do that.”
Malenius is already trying to go back to the studio audience
After being in the audience for “SNL’s” most-watched season premiere in four years, Team Dooneese took their Ubers back to Brooklyn. Malenius said she’s already checking the 1iota site “religiously” to reapply.
“I mean, now that we’ve been, we were like, ‘We want to come every week. We’ve got the masks. Why not? We’ve got nothing else on our calendars,'” she told Insider.
After months of quarantining, she’s hopeful that “SNL” can continue to have live audiences, even though the portal she applied through seems to have disappeared.
“I don’t want New York to let its guard down because our numbers are starting to tick back up. I don’t want to send an irresponsible message, but it did feel like we as a city … worked really hard to be able to get the numbers to where they were,” she said.
While she and her seven neighbors sat in Studio 8H watching their first live performance in months, Malenius said they couldn’t help but smile under their masks.
“I really likened it to the first episode after 9/11 when Giuliani came on. And as someone who lived in New York during 9/11, I felt like that episode was really pivotal in sending the message that the city is in a rebirth sort of phase,” she said. “That’s how I felt about going to the first episode of ‘SNL.'”