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Amid the rapid spread of omicron, the Jan. 15 deadline for renewing or changing the COVID-19 safety protocols agreement between the industry’s top guilds and studios came and went without any official acknowledgment. That deal, which went into effect in September 2020 and has been extended several times since, with its latest update published July 19, is expected to be extended until mid-February, multiple sources tell The Hollywood Reporter.
With the highly contagious variant tearing through sets and entertainment workplaces, however, some workers are questioning whether the current protocols are stringent enough or could at least use some targeted updates that respond to the virus’ latest mutation. Others point to case-by-case enforcement in a rapidly changing situation being more of an issue than the industry’s protocols. In recent weeks, Paramount+’s Star Trek: Picard paused production after more than 50 people tested positive, while filming on CBS’ NCIS also halted due to COVID-19. The Black Panther sequel restarted production last week in Atlanta, only to get delayed because several cast- and crewmembers including Lupita Nyong’o tested positive for the virus (production was set to restart this week).
“Production was robust in the last months of the year, and the return from the holiday hiatus has been comparatively slow,” says FilmLA rep Philip Sokoloski. “To date, we have seen more than a dozen productions that originally planned to film in early January call FilmLA to cancel or reschedule their shoots for a later time.”
That trajectory has only added to the focus on the COVID agreement. “We have to strengthen these protocols or else we’re just going to continue to [allow] the infection and reinfection and reinfection of these crewmembers who are at the mercy of whatever budgets and schedules have been decided for them,” says Andy Kennedy-Derkay, an IATSE member who primarily works as a second assistant camera, and who says his most recent project paused for health and safety reasons.
Script supervisor and Local 871 member Robert Moon believes that while different levels of enforcement exist on different sets, when the protocols are followed, “they’re sufficient,” as the omicron variant’s effects are considered to be less dangerous than those of the previous dominant variant, delta. Some modifications that would help, however, he says, would be to extend the current mandate (in effect when COVID levels are high) for members of Zone A — a group of cast and crew that includes actors who often need to go unmasked for scenes, and those that are in close proximity to them — to test three times a week, including at least one lab-based PCR test, to Zone B (which, under the current agreement, has to test only once a week if using a lab-based PCR test or twice if using a rapid test) and incorporate booster shots.
The last modifications to the agreement were instituted in July 2021 and addressed vaccines for the first time; the CDC encouraged all adults to get booster shots in November. The agreement details heightened safety measures that are activated when certain criteria are met. The more stringent protocols are triggered when the transmission rate (the average number of people an infected person will pass the virus on to) in a metropolitan area or county is at least 1.1 and the number of new COVID-19 cases is 10 or more per 100,000 people for seven straight days. (Both conditions have been met in L.A. County since December, meaning productions should be operating under the more stringent guidelines.) The only difference in the enhanced protocols is that vaccinated people must wear a mask at all times indoors regardless of whether the building they are working in uses an air filtration system.
Still, several crewmembers who spoke for this story emphasized that over time, some productions have become more relaxed with how they handle and enforce the return-to-work protocols even as omicron surges and production workers have just returned to work after the holidays. “The last several shows I’ve been on, the COVID teams basically tell people, ‘Well, my boss isn’t here, so feel free not to wear your masks because we’ve been good about testing regularly.’ … Things are not nearly as strict as they were a year and a half ago,” says one IATSE Local 728 member, who notes that on their current show, they’ve gotten emails across multiple successive days about set workers testing positive.
Producer and former health and safety manager Jess Weiss notes that when that two-tier agreement was last modified in July, there was an overall movement “to slowly become less conservative and more lax in a vaxxed [group].” She adds, “However, omicron hit and we have these conservative rules. That means we’re going to stay with these conservative rules until proven otherwise. … It’s up to me as a producer to enforce them as they are and have my crew understand that their safety is of my utmost priority.”
While cast and crew in Zone A have the most stringent requirements, postproduction falls into Zone D, for which, according to the latest agreement, employees “do not require periodic testing after a pre-employment test.” Insiders in the post community say various studios have stepped up testing on their own, but some employed on projects under The Walt Disney Co. umbrella have voiced concerns that when they go to work, testing requirements don’t always go much further than what is in the agreement.
“I think that a lot of people in postproduction are frustrated,” says one such source. “Now that [omicron] is so rampant, I would like to be tested on a relatively regular basis. It’s logical that when it spikes, we should be tested more. Unless someone important enough (i.e., directors or actors) comes [to the workplace], we are not [regularly] testing.”
The source added that while some production zones test two or three times a week, postproduction can test “potentially once in a year and a half” per the current agreement, which by all accounts, Disney follows.
Another source also working on a Disney project called such limited Zone D testing “a vacuum in leadership — management and the union.” The source says, “I can’t begin to understand how that’s good for anyone including their own company, putting the workers that are producing their content at risk.”
When the AMPTP and unions IATSE, SAG-AFTRA, the DGA, the Teamsters and the Basic Crafts last modified their safety agreement, they arrived at a tentative short-term deal allowing producers to mandate vaccines in Zone A. (THR reached out to all the unions for updates on the expired extension on Monday and did not receive a response.) While only Zone A employees are required to be vaccinated if such a mandate is implemented, producers have the discretion to extend the policy to other zones if they are granted a waiver to do so.
But it remains unclear whether a possible future agreement would ever implement more stringent mandatory vaccination policies. The U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 13 blocked a federal vaccine or testing mandate for businesses with at least 100 employees, shifting the burden back to studios and guilds to decide whether to implement an identical requirement. The ruling largely leaves companies on their own to craft appropriate COVID-19 precautions. The mandate would have forced employees of large productions to get vaccinated regardless of their zone classification.
While employers can still choose to implement a vaccine mandate and testing requirements, Bryan Sullivan, an attorney at Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae, was skeptical that such a provision will be included in new COVID-19 protocols. “With omicron, while you can still get it while vaccinated, you’re not that sick and rarely do you have to go to a hospital if you’re already reasonably healthy. It’s much more treatable,” Sullivan noted. Still, he said there’s a chance that a vaccine or testing mandate is implemented because studios risk losing millions of dollars if a production is stopped because of a virus outbreak.
Dimitry Krol, an entertainment attorney at Loeb & Loeb, said: “One of the problems is that everyone wanted a bright-line rule to ensure a safe workforce, and now it’s going to depend.”
A version of this story appeared in the Jan. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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