California May Drop Its Mask Mandates, But Hollywood Won’t

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After navigating the biggest COVID surge ever with Omicron, studios and unions are discussing how to move forward

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After grappling with the COVID-19 Omicron surge that led to dozens of film and TV shoots being postponed, Hollywood’s studios and guilds are back in meetings this week to review the industry’s safety protocols. And while California may be lifting its mask mandate, movie sets won’t.

The Return to Work Agreement, which dictates the pandemic safety protocols productions must adhere to, is set to be renewed as its expiration date approaches Sunday. While the new expiration date hasn’t been set yet and the outlook on the pandemic remains uncertain, studio and labor sources tell TheWrap that they expect most if not all of the protocols to remain in place through the duration of 2022.

“We are operating under the assumption that the Return to Work Agreement will remain as it is for the time being,” one production executive told TheWrap.

Despite the fact that over 61,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 over the past month — with 9,500 deaths between Feb. 7-9 — governors in multiple states have announced plans to lift mask mandates, including in California on Feb. 15 with the exception of Los Angeles County, which is waiting for infection rates to drop further before gradually loosening mandatory mask wearing at large gatherings and indoor businesses.

But in the entertainment industry, which has some of the most influential unions in the world looking to protect their members and studios that risk losing millions if a COVID outbreak pauses a shoot, there’s far less of a rush to return to a semblance of normalcy. Insiders with knowledge of the talks between the two sides say that the latest round of protocol reviews will likely see studios agree to the guilds’ request to replenish paid COVID leave for workers, a sign that the industry is still on the lookout for another potential variant surge.

“There could be weeks of talks about how to phase out the Return to Work Agreement when the time comes,” one insider tells us. “But that’s not even going to start until there’s a widespread consensus from health experts that COVID is definitely in the endemic stage.”

As the Omicron surge swept across the United States with record infections in January, studios didn’t implement a voluntary pause on shooting in Los Angeles as they did a year ago. But FilmLA, which oversees shooting permits for the county, tells TheWrap that at least two dozen projects scheduled to start production in January were postponed until infection rates subsided. Most of these shoots were films and TV dramas with significant prep work.

“From our observations, some shoots stopped for a few days after a positive test, but most of the lengthy postponements were done before shooting began,” FilmLA President Paul Audley says. “Studios don’t want to spend money on weeks of prep only to have an outbreak right when cameras start rolling.”

Among the productions delayed was the upcoming Fox music drama “Monarch,” which saw its premiere delayed from January to the fall as a pre-emptive measure against a COVID outbreak that could shut down filming during the show’s broadcast run and cause a delay in new episodes.

“What we realized was the show is too important to us. It has too much potential. We don’t want to be in a position where COVID is deciding the show’s fate,” Fox entertainment president Michael Thorn told TheWrap last month. “And because we’re smaller, and it’s a little more nimble, we realized we could move it to the fall. We would have all the episodes and we could take advantage of the long lead time.”

“Monarch” (FOX Media)

Other productions that paused out of precaution or positive COVID tests in the cast and crew include “Star Trek: Picard,” “NCIS,” and “Grey’s Anatomy.” Even for those TV shows that were able to keep filming, there were still concerns among actors with guest appearances or obligations for other productions who didn’t want their schedules derailed by a positive COVID test.

While studios pushed back on requests from the guilds to increase COVID testing during the Omicron surge, sources say that productions with actors that raised those concerns tended to see testing increases.

That testing may be more infrequent for most workers at least for the next few months if infection rates follow the same lull that was seen between March and June last year, with testing frequency dropping as low as once a week in areas with the least amount of viral spread. For those who test positive, the studios and guilds are considering putting more focus on rapid antigen tests after a few days of quarantine to better determine when someone is no longer infectious and can come back to the set.

In Los Angeles, it remains to be seen whether the Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium will pause or reverse the recent decline in infection rates; but FilmLA says that since the last week of January, on-location shooting days in the county have reverted to pre-pandemic levels and that the organization anticipates a surge in production work similar to the record numbers seen in the last quarter of 2021.

The more immediate challenge will come overseas, as several countries like the United Kingdom and Denmark, which have a much larger share of their population fully vaccinated than the U.S., have lifted all COVID-19 restrictions and safety requirements. This means that Hollywood productions that shoot outside the U.S. will have to figure out how to enforce COVID-19 safety protocols when not all crew members are unionized with IATSE, SAG-AFTRA or the Directors Guild.

“There are some workers on international shoots that are not working under the Return to Work Agreement,” says one production exec. “As countries lift their mask requirements, the next hurdle will have to be finding that balance with non-union workers where there’s even less alignment between industry protocols and what is and isn’t being enforced in the country where shooting is taking place.”