'Today' 's Craig Melvin on Lockdown Measures at Olympics: 'You Can't Roll Down the Windows in the Car'

Craig Melvin is the only Today co-host covering the Olympics on the ground in China, after co-anchors Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb tested positive for COVID-19 last month

Craig Melvin Beijing Olympics
Photo: Craig Melvin/Twitter

The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing are striking a different note for all involved — and for Craig Melvin, the sole Today host covering the events on the ground, it's a complete departure from the usual vibe.

"It's not as much fun without the family," Melvin, 42, tells PEOPLE from China on Thursday, as he prepared to go to bed after covering the Games. "Al Roker and I typically go off and we do a couple of adventures for the show. We've done a bunch of these buddy segments. Can't do that here. And at the Olympics, we all usually get those opportunities to bond and just have fun."

As the only host on the ground in Beijing — co-anchors Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb opted not to fly in due to the risk of testing positive after both had COVID in January — Melvin, who is co-host of the Third Hour of Today, reports firsthand that the government-imposed COVID restrictions are rigorous.

Normally, "we have a few drinks, we stay up late. Not being able to do that, that does suck," he says. "I was texting with Savannah, the first or second night, and I told her it wasn't the same. In Tokyo, after the show, we'd belly up to the bar and she's got her tequila, I've got my bourbon, and there occasionally might be a dance party or two that would erupt on the back end of the Games, because everyone's delirious. And there's none of that at this time either."

Craig Melvin Olympics
Hagen Hopkins/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty

"We're not permitted to leave our restricted zone. The venues, the international broadcast center — which is essentially headquarters for journalists for the Games — and our hotel; those are the only places that we are permitted to go. We are restricted by fences and gates and police."

The restrictions are so intense, "when we get in cars to travel, they don't allow you to roll down the windows," he says. "I'm not exactly sure what they're concerned about, but you can't roll down the windows in the cars. I only know that because I tried to roll them down twice and was scolded. The lockdown is pretty intense here."

There has been increased scrutiny on the Chinese government amid concerns about the accommodations athletes and other visitors are experiencing when forced to quarantine. (Since they started testing on Jan. 23, there have been 159 confirmed positive cases among athletes and team officials, as of Feb. 8, according to CBS News.)

And one reporter's altercation with Chinese police made headlines when he was accosted during a live report for his Dutch TV station.

Though Melvin says the Today team has experienced nothing in that same vein, "it's always worrying when professional journalists are being accosted for doing their jobs, regardless of where they are in the world," he says. "That was troubling."

But "I can tell you by and large, we have not had similar incidents," he says. "We've been able to talk to athletes. We've been able to travel in our restricted area, travel freely, and the show, we haven't shied away from covering the complicated nature of these Games." (The Chinese government's persecution of the Uyghur population in China is the cause for a diplomatic boycott of the Games by U.S. officials.) "We haven't shied away from it, and we didn't shy away from it in 2008. That's what we do."

But Melvin says the highlight of the experience is getting incredible access to the athletes.

Craig Melvin Beijing Olympics
Craig Melvin/Twitter

"This is my fourth Olympics, and to not just have a front-row seat to history in general, but to be around these men and women who have spent the better part of their lives working to attain a single goal, and to be with them or near them shortly after they've obtained that goal is incredible," he says. "We talked to Nathan Chen today before he had a chance to talk to his family, talk to his mom, and even through the mask, you can just see him smiling from ear to ear. Those kinds of stories, they never get old to me. That's my favorite part."

To learn more about Team USA, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Winter Olympics, now, and the Paralympics, beginning March 4, on NBC.

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