Surging virus prompts call to halt in-person TV and film production
By Matt Stevens
Seven people working on “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” which was being shot at an NBC Universal stage in Studio City, California, tested positive for the coronavirus this fall. So did nine people working on the Netflix series “Colin in Black & White” in Gardena. And the Los Angeles County Public Health Department reported that a dozen people working on the sitcom “Young Sheldon” in Burbank got the virus, too.
The entertainment industry is so vital to Los Angeles that film and television production were both allowed to continue even after outdoor dining was banned. But now, with the coronavirus surging across California and overwhelming hospitals, unions and industry groups are calling for in-person production to be suspended.
“Southern California hospitals are facing a crisis the likes of which we have never seen before,” Gabrielle Carteris, the president of SAG-AFTRA, the union representing 160,000 people who work in film, television and radio, said in a statement. “Patients are dying in ambulances waiting for treatment because hospital emergency rooms are overwhelmed. This is not a safe environment for in-person production right now.”
The union was joined in its call for a “temporary hold on in-person production in Southern California” by groups representing producers and advertisers.
The recommendation, which was announced Sunday, came as officials said that major studios in the area had already extended a standard holiday-related pause in production until at least mid-January in the hope that the number of new cases would subside by then, freeing up space in hospitals and intensive care units.
By Monday night, “The Late Late Show” announced in a tweet that it had moved its production back into James Corden’s garage until it was “safe to return to our studio.” And a spokesperson for “Jimmy Kimmel Live” confirmed a Deadline report that the Los Angeles-based late show would film remotely for the next two weeks.
Officials from the groups calling for a pause — which also included a committee representing commercial advertisers and advertising agencies — said that they were encouraging their members to stay at home and not accept any on-set employment for several weeks. They noted that even workers who do not contract the virus put themselves at risk of becoming injured by stunts, falls or other mishaps, and that they could find it difficult to get treatment at hospitals.
“It is too hard to say right now when the situation may improve,” said David White, national executive director of SAG-AFTRA.
The Producers Guild of America said in its own statement that it was encouraging everyone “to delay production until the county health officials indicate it’s safe to resume.”
Like sports, theater and much of the entertainment industry, film and television production has been forced to endure a turbulent year of stops and starts. The pandemic caused what was essentially a global shutdown in March, followed by a gradual phased reopening over the summer with a laundry list of new safety protocols in place that forced executives to reimagine how to make blockbuster movies safely, or how to finish uncompleted television seasons.
The measures they have taken could not entirely stop the spread of the virus, however, and throughout the summer and fall stars including Robert Pattinson and Dwayne Johnson tested positive. Pattinson’s positive test forced filming of “The Batman” at studios outside London to shut down. And last month, an audio recording of Tom Cruise emerged in which the actor could be heard scolding crew members on the set of “Mission: Impossible 7” for not following COVID-19 protocols.
The restart, uneven and incomplete, has also forced the industry to slash budgets and lay off employees. FilmLA, the official film office for the city and county of Los Angeles, reported that filming in the area fell by more than 54% from July to September compared with the same period the previous year. (In New York City, only 35 of the nearly 80 series that were filming or planning to film were back at work by early November.)
Then came the wave of infections that have staggered California since Thanksgiving. More than 35,000 new cases were reported in the state Sunday, and the weekly average of new cases per day in Los Angeles County exceeded 16,000 last week — roughly 12 times higher than it was averaging on Nov. 1.
The crisis has stretched the health care system so thin that at one Los Angeles hospital, incoming patients were recently being instructed to wait in an outdoor tent because the lobby was being used to treat patients, and gurneys filled the gift shop.
The lack of hospital capacity prompted public health officials in Los Angeles to reach out to some members of the production industry on Dec. 24 to ask them to “strongly consider pausing work for a few weeks during this catastrophic surge in COVID cases,” FilmLA said.
(An official at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said only that it had “recommended a voluntary pause on production activities” during a phone call with industry officials, but did not specify a time frame.)
A database maintained by the county health department lists locations tied to CBS, NBC, Netflix and Warner Bros. as among the more than 500 workplaces, restaurants and stores that have reported three or more positive coronavirus cases. Officials for the studios declined to comment on the record.
With the standard holiday break now expanded until mid-January because of the surge in cases and concerns about hospital capacity in Los Angeles, several shows that had been slated to resume production this week will not return until next week at the earliest, officials said.