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Hollywood’s Covid quandary — get back to work & risk infections or delay & lose business

Industry has taken steps to ensure filming is safe, but surge of Covid cases demonstrates progress is fragile. Extreme caution also makes it harder for business to pick up.

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Hollywood is grappling with tough choices because of the devastating rise in Covid cases in the entertainment capital: whether to restart film and TV production following a holiday break.

With Los Angeles County hospitals and health officials recommending a temporary pause in work where possible, some studios have opted to delay resuming work on shows that were on hiatus for the holidays. A major labor union, SAG-AFTRA, warned members that sets could be closed until at least the third week of January. Its leaders are assessing whether a longer pause is necessary.

Though the industry has taken steps to ensure filming is safe, a surge of new Covid cases demonstrates that the progress is fragile. One positive test result on set can shut down a whole production, costing millions and risking the safety of dozens. However, extreme caution also makes it harder for the beleaguered business to return to economic health.

“We are closely monitoring the recent surge in Covid-19 infections along with the reported lack of intensive care unit (ICU) beds throughout the state of California and particularly in Los Angeles County,” executives at SAG-AFTRA, the powerful Hollywood union that represents more than 160,000 workers, wrote in a letter to members Tuesday. “This is deeply concerning to us all.”

After production in Los Angeles County halted in March, trade unions, studios and health experts worked together to create safety protocols that allowed workers to return to set. To get a permit to film in the region now, productions must frequently test workers, clean equipment and limit the number of extras, among other measures.

June reopening

In June, the Los Angeles film office FilmLA resumed issuing new permits, and the number of active productions rose steadily through November. Some cases on set arose, such as on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” causing shutdowns, but there were no widespread outbreaks. On Dec. 8, FilmLA said it was receiving an average of 39 new-permit applications a day, up from zero between March and June, though filming is at about half the level of 2019.

However, the number of film permits dropped off more than expected in December, and new permit applications are running light. On Tuesday, the county had 7,180 people hospitalized with the virus, an all-time high.

“Covid-19 has been a clear factor in decision making,” a spokesman for FilmLA said in an email.

Normally, actors and actresses go back to work in early January. Unions recommended they return later in 2021 to give more time for testing. Some networks and studios have also been extra-careful. ViacomCBS Inc.’s CBS delayed the return of five shows, including the scripted crime dramas “NCIS” and “NCIS: Los Angeles,” by one week because of the surge in local Covid cases. Walt Disney Co. also bumped the restart date for some of its shows to mid-January from earlier in the month.

Painful time

Still, the delays are painful for entertainment workers eager to get back to work. Lobbyists representing industry workers spent much of the year asking for federal relief. In a letter to congressional leaders in May, dozens of trade unions said the entertainment business had been “decimated” by the pandemic.

“Many of our jobs have not only vanished, they will be gone for quite some time,” they wrote.

Earlier this month a video posted by Angela Marsden, the owner of the Pineapple Hill Grill & Saloon in Los Angeles’ Sherman Oaks neighborhood, went viral after she complained about shooting allowed to go on next to her restaurant, while her business was barred from offering outdoor dining. Actor Tom Cruise, meanwhile, drew widespread attention after an audio recording of him berating staff on the set of his newest film was leaked to the media.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Wednesday he believes studios should press on with their work, despite the surging coronavirus caseload. Most cases are coming from contacts with people out in the community, he said.

Films sets are “rigorously tested, and that is a much more controllable space,” he said at a press conference. “Places that are open to the general public are not.”- Bloomberg

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