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Partygoers' pandemic pregame

Rapid covid-19 testing for attendees is new velvet rope by ALYSON KRUEGER THE NEW YORK TIMES | August 23, 2020 at 3:01 a.m.
Dr. Seth Gordon administers a rapid covid-19 test to Raya OíNeal, director of communications at the Surf Lodge, in Montauk, N.Y., on Aug. 13. Determined to proceed with parties and events this summer, hosts are adding screenings at the door. But such measures are hardly a guarantee of safety, medical experts warn. (The New York Times/Joe Carrotta)

Dr. Asma Rashid, who runs a members-only medical concierge service in the Hamptons, has received some of the most sought-after party invitations this summer.

"We've gone to these private, private, private events, where they have me sign a 'nothing you see in this house can be leaked' document," she said. "This is still a party town."

Rashid is there to administer rapid or real-time tests for the coronavirus. She performs the procedure -- either a finger prick or a nose swab -- in the car and then lets guests into the house only if their tests come back negative. The entire procedure takes less than 30 minutes. Consider it a pandemic pregame.

Suffolk County, N.Y., still lacks rapid testing infrastructure, and the private service is expensive: up to $500 per test, and not all insurance companies will cover the cost. Most doctors do not even have kits to do the tests; patients willing to pay can wait up to a week for an appointment at the offices that have them in New York.

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For that reason, many clients book Rashid in advance when they anticipate hosting guests for a sleepover, a barbecue or a wedding. But some summon her at 2 a.m. for a last-minute test or stop by her office in a panic after attending a crowded gathering.

"Every time there is an event, a protest or Fourth of July celebration, there is higher demand," she said. A busy day came after a drive-in "Safe & Sound" concert, where the chief executive of Goldman Sachs performed, at the end of July. Concertgoers, who paid $1,250 per car to attend, were supposed to stay in their cars, but social media showed crowds dancing by the stage.

"I can't even tell you how many requests we got after that," Rashid said.

The event is currently under investigation.

A NEW OFFICE

Rashid has tripled her staff to keep up with demand for coronavirus testing this summer. The last Saturday in July she even opened a new office in Bridgehampton, N.Y.

"The way I would describe our growth is exponential," she said.

While most of the country waits 7-14 days for coronavirus test results, a privileged few have access to rapid tests. There are a few types -- some detect antibodies, others antigens or viral genetic material -- but they all provide an answer in under 30 minutes.

Hosts are hiring doctors to screen guests before they attend their gatherings, or children coming in from out of town for sleepovers. Other people are getting tests to provide peace of mind after a particularly wild night. Event companies are offering rapid testing as a service to clients alongside catering and music. Instagram influencers are even touting the service.

Still, these rapid tests are not totally reliable, said Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, New York City's deputy commissioner of disease control. "Negatives are not definitive," he said. (And there certainly have been false positives.)

"No test is 100%," Rashid said. "A negative test does not preclude one to not be carrying the virus."

Indeed, one reason rapid tests are not in widespread use is that they require additional testing to confirm.

"We have to retest all of our negatives, so you're doing two tests for everyone who is negative," Daskalakis said. "It's a resource issue."

He also warned that the virus can take some time to show up in a test result; though some people test positive 48 hours after exposure, the two-week possible incubation period that has dictated quarantine is generally accepted. So if you were exposed to the virus even 10 days before your test, the outcome is still uncertain.

"You can't go to a house party the week before you see Grandma," Daskalakis said. "That test doesn't matter."

RAPID TESTING

Ryan Choura, the founder of Choura, an event and experience production company in Torrance, Calif., that arranges the tenting and furniture for the U.S. Open golf tournament and the BeachLife Festival, believes so strongly that all events should incorporate rapid testing that he created an arm of his company to do it.

"There is no question that you now have to have rapid testing as a component to every event no matter what," Choura said.

It is not an easy feat to pull off.

"Temperature is a major issue. You have to keep tests under 80 degrees," he said. "You need to put up some kind of tent, like a catering tent." He added, "We have a 100-point checklist for anything we want to build."

Still, on July 23, the company staged its first event for 90 attendees (and 30 vendors) using the Rapid Quidel Corp. Sofia SARS Antigen Test. The good news: Not a single vendor or attendee tested positive. The bad news: It was a bit of a buzz kill.

Joie Shettler, 51, a singer and co-owner of Rebel Music Entertainment who lives in Redondo Beach, Calif., attended the event, which included bottled cocktails and panels on the future of the events industry, after learning about it on Facebook. She ended up having fun, but the beginning felt clinical.

"We had to fill out a form beforehand so that they would be ready for us when we arrived. We also had to book a time frame of when to arrive," Shettler said. "We had instructions to drive up in our cars, where we would be tested. From there we were instructed to stay in our car, and they would text us our results within 20 minutes."

"I was a little worried while waiting for the results," she added. "Both Alysha, my friend, and I were squealing when the results came in. We were both negative! And we were excited to finally enter the event."

NOT A DRIVE-IN

Choura said he is planning a 1,000-person live music event, "most likely in another state," for which every person will be rapid-tested in the next 30-60 days. He is still figuring out the details, but promises it will not be a drive-in.

"Right now people are bragging about doing live music, and people are sitting in their cars," he said. "I don't want to sit in my car and listen to live music. And by the way, just because you are sitting in your car doesn't mean it's safe."

One of the easier places to get a rapid coronavirus test is the Surf Lodge, a hotel and restaurant in Montauk, N.Y., known for hosting and entertaining celebrities including John Legend and Bon Jovi.

Jayma Cardoso, one of the hotel's owners, pays Dr. Seth Gordon, her son's pediatrician, to test all of her employees weekly.

"He has his own Sofia 2 machine by Quidel so he can do the test" -- an antigen test -- "and get the results very quickly, in 15 minutes," she said.

Once a week, the doctor sets up a testing site on the sand-filled deck overlooking Fort Pond. Raya O'Neal, 24, the hotel's director of communications, who lives in East Hampton, N.Y., says while she hates the test, which takes about 10 seconds, she understands it is an exclusive perk.

"I have some friends and family members who think I'm too fancy for them now," she said.

O'Neal feels safer living with her parents knowing she regularly tests negative for the virus. But it also emboldens her socially.

"I don't feel as worried as I do about eating or going to public places," she said. "Once I saw my closest friends after not seeing them for months, and I did the humblebrag about being tested weekly and being negative, and I just had to hug them."

NO ALL-ACCESS PASS

But as any public-health expert will tell you, individual test results are not an all-access pass to Life as It Was Before.

"There is a false confidence you get when you use a test for social decisions," Daskalakis said. "This is one of those things I lose sleep over."

Nonetheless, receiving rapid testing for the virus has become a mark of status and, ergo, a trending topic on social media.

Tasha Todd, 40, is a medical assistant in Dallas. When her former office, a concierge medical group, first received the rapid testing kit, she posted about it on Instagram, where she has nearly 28,000 followers, to hype the service.

"I wanted to try to bring more business into the company," Todd said. "Not that we could have handled much more volume. We were seeing 30 people a day, 25 of which were in for covid testing."

"I got a lot of feedback," she said. "A lot of people were messaging about the prices, where the office was, what the difference was between that and a regular test, and how quickly the results come in." Her office charges $150 for a test, but she knows of other clinics in Dallas that charge $500 or more.

Todd said she felt frustrated that many of her followers would not be able to afford one.

"I would say rapid testing right now is for the rich. It's too expensive," she said. "Who has 150 to 500 dollars just lying around in the middle of the recession?"

TEMPERATURE CHECKS

Some bars and restaurants have tried offering rapid testing to their customers, an act that brings in publicity. This practice can backfire, however.

For its reopening weekend at the end of June, Ravel Hotel in the Long Island City neighborhood of New York worked with an outside doctor to give all arrivals a test before entering (charging $35 for those with insurance and $50 for those without.) Photos emerged on social media and then in Gothamist of people who had all tested negative, partying and mingling closely without masks, producing the inevitable tsks.

Nicole Milazzo, a spokeswoman for the hotel, said it is no longer testing guests, after concerns expressed by the mayor's Office of Nightlife about "creating a false sense of security," but is "continuing to follow all rules and regulations put forward by the CDC and New York City," including distancing tables and cabanas by more than 6 feet and providing masks and sanitizer.

Other gatekeepers, unable to get their hands on rapid testing to begin with, or unwilling to shoulder the cost, have implemented alternate screening methods.

Thuyen Nguyen, who has worked with celebrities including actress Michelle Williams, is reopening his salon in East Hampton later this summer. Every person who walks in will get body-scanned by an Antlia System, which checks for a temperature in under a second. A little box positioned at reception does all the screening without touching the person. (Such screens have been criticized by medical experts because infections can occur without symptoms, including fevers, and people's baseline temperatures vary.)

RED, YELLOW, GREEN

Reports on social media have also surfaced of colored bracelets or leis to moderate contact at weddings, like the spotlight parties from college where you wore green if you were single, red if you were taken, and yellow if you weren't sure. Now the idea is green if you are OK with hugs and high-fives, yellow if you are fine with talking but not touching, and red if you are totally keeping your distance from everybody. ("Scares me to my core," tweeted one bride-to-be, of the illusory confidence such accessories might impart.)

As private citizens improvise at their peril, local governments continue to try to make rapid testing more accessible. New York City's Department of Health, for example, put a pop-up site in the Bronx and now Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood, where Mayor Bill de Blasio recently warned of an increase in coronavirus cases. The idea is to identify as many positives early on so the city can help offer isolation guidance.

"There is the ability of the folks who have and the folks who don't," Daskalakis said. "We are very consciously pushing the rapid test in environments where people aren't resource-rich."

The city plans to take the technology to nine clinics that focused on sexual health, transforming then into coronavirus testing sites.

Even New Yorkers from more affluent neighborhoods are flocking to these free testing sites to get quick results.

ALL AFTERNOON

The first weekend in August, Mary Ann Mackey, 31, who lives in Park Slope and works for the Manhattan Borough President's Office, went to Brooklyn on a Sunday afternoon to get a rapid test before visiting her parents for the first time since the pandemic started.

Mackey arrived at 12:30 and was there all afternoon. She was surprised by the line.

"By the time I had been through the line it had been three hours, and the whole block was still full of people," she said. "Everyone was remarkably patient and calm. People had books and magazines out. Some people were chatting. I overheard a few people talk about how they had waited in a long line elsewhere and were excited to get it over with and know their results."

This experience felt like a luxury.

"This feels like a weird thing to say, but it was kind of a cool experience," Mackey said. "It felt kind of like a privilege to have results."

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