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During the height of the pandemic and in the months since, Hollywood productions routinely cut corners while trying to balance tight filming schedules against strict COVID-19 safety protocols, some insiders say. In September, a former HBO health adviser, Georgia Hesse, sued the company for wrongful termination, claiming she was fired for raising a red flag that CineMedics, a third-party COVID-testing vendor, used an unapproved and inferior test during the production of HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. Hesse’s complaint alleges that HBO was aware of the fraud but ignored it in order to keep the production on track, endangering crewmembers and violating industry safety protocols. “It’s unknown to Plaintiff, at this point, why producers and HBO favored a vendor who lied to them, ripped them off, fabricated medical records and put the lives and safety of cast and crew at risk by peddling overpriced, inferior tests,” says the complaint, filed Sept. 13. HBO didn’t respond to a request for comment. CineMedics denies any wrongdoing.
Crewmembers on other productions have reported similar lapses and violations. An atmosphere of noncompliance and casual disregard for the rules was “standard practice on the biggest shows around,” says Jen Lyon. An actress and medic, Lyon was a COVID compliance supervisor on several big-budget series filmed during the height of the pandemic. She adds, “It was an absolutely toothless position. … We had no power whatsoever.” One associate producer, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, tells THR that supervisors on her set in the fall of 2021 kept crew in the dark about positive cases. “They didn’t tell us until two full days after,” she says. In at least one other case, the problem was the COVID safety officer himself. A former production assistant on a reality TV production in the Midwest says the COVID compliance officer assigned to her show was an avid COVID denier who urged her not to get the vaccine and regularly encouraged crew to break masking rules. She and other crew decided to take safety into their own hands because positive cases were being covered up. “We had to make this little secret pact because they’d just lie,” she says. “They were being told to lie about the situation by the upper management because they didn’t want to shut down.” And when that COVID safety officer got COVID, the show ran for two weeks without any safety oversight at all. The company couldn’t be reached for comment.
COVID surges led to closures on multiple productions in the past year as Apple TV+’s Platonic stopped shooting in August after a COVID surge led to 24 infections. The Amazon Prime show Expats wrapped filming this year after a similar flood of cases. Lionsgate, Sony and Fox Entertainment have all had serious outbreaks. Other incidents demonstrated how COVID oversight could be abused in less dramatic ways. One crewmember who wished to remain anonymous claims a worker on a nonfiction program changed a COVID test result from negative to positive by using a computer program so the production could receive a refund on a flight it no longer needed.
Lyon, the former COVID safety officer, says producers violated masking regulations or testing protocols “all the time” but says she was powerless to intervene. There were several situations in which stars on shows would test positive for COVID and Lyon would recommend they be quarantined. “The producers would say, ‘No, that’s a false positive.’ I’d stare at them blankly. I’d say, ‘No, I’ve tested them twice and they’re symptomatic. And their assistant is also sick. I can’t let them film. Can we discuss filming other scenes without this person for the next several days?’ ” Time and again, producers insisted on the false positive narrative. If Lyon persisted, the producers appealed to the show’s medical director. Says Lyon, “They would just go over my head.”
When compliance officers threatened to report violations up the chain, Lyon claims they were often fired and replaced. “That’s why you’d see a show with four to seven COVID advisers over the course of a shooting season,” she says. “It became a joke with us. We’d ask: ‘How many weeks did you make it?’ ”
In the earliest days of COVID, testing was spotty and compliance understandably more difficult. As the lockdowns spread, productions tightened up, but grueling schedules made compliance tricky. “There were definitely people making choices that I wasn’t comfortable with,” says Dewey Caddell, another COVID compliance officer. Caddell, who says he believes Lyon’s account and has heard similar stories, says his experience was more positive. He recalls paying $1,000 for a driver to make the round trip from New York to Baltimore to deliver a single test, as tests were scarce and expensive and normal waiting times were extraordinarily long. On another shoot, he spent tens of thousands of dollars revamping the air systems. He says, “People did their best in a difficult situation.”
Adds Anthony Chasse, a key production assistant on the COVID compliance team for last season’s Dexter from January to June 2021: “It was the hardest job I’ve ever had. I’d get complaints weekly — either we were doing too much or too little. There were 20 of us trying to keep this crazy train moving.”
All that effort costs money. COVID compliance measures, including safety teams, personal protective equipment, quarantine expenses and food delivery, can increase a show’s overall budget by 10 to 20 percent. Most studios and production companies swallowed the extra costs. According to the complaint filed by Hesse, COVID compliance measures pushed HBO’s budget on Winning Time up to $18 million. But, while bigger budgets may have provided a patina of security, they didn’t necessarily translate into solutions. “They’d always respond, every time, with the correct sense of urgency,” says Lyon, “until they realized what the financial impact would be to the show, and then that would change.”
By the look of things, the lax atmosphere hasn’t improved much. Stunt coordinator Shawn Balentine already had tested positive for COVID by the time he boarded a plane from Winnipeg to Edmonton in July. His bosses at Voss Events, a New York-based production company behind RuPaul’s Drag Race and Night of the Living Drag, hadn’t left him much choice. “Wear a mask and sunglasses tomorrow,” Balentine’s supervisor had texted him — including a crying-while-laughing emoji. “Also, should any questions be asked, you tested negative 🙂 That way we can blame it on a faulty test.” As the plane took off, Balentine was coughing and sweating, shaking with chills and body aches. “I was living my best life, and then it turned into a nightmare,” he says. “I was utterly, utterly miserable.” (The supervisor didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
From his hotel, Balentine called a doctor, who tried to persuade him to stop working, as did his friend Bobby King, an independent stunt coordinator and COVID safety protocol officer at Viacom. “He was so messed up,” says King, who had lost friends and colleagues to COVID. “His lungs and his respiratory system were so in distress that I feared the next call I received about him would be that he was hospitalized.” Nonetheless, Balentine claims his bosses at Voss told him to keep his positive result and deteriorating health a secret.
Worried for his friend, King reached out to a crewmember who had helped Balentine get the job. “[P]lease check on your team in Canada,” King wrote. “I’ve heard that one is sick with COVID and could use your help.” The crewmember wrote back: “I actually knew about 30 seconds after he tested positive, and we had a replacement out the following day. … It’s brutal out there, but we’re doing everything we can to mitigate those challenges.”
Balentine claims it was the opposite. “I was told to do [the show] anyways, and I did it, plain and simple,” Balentine says. He worked that night at the Plum Regent Casino in Winnipeg, standing face-to-face with performers even though he had tested positive, was “sweating like crazy” and dizzy. The crewmember couldn’t be reached for comment.
The next day, the Voss crew went to the airport to go to Edmonton. Again, Balentine says that Voss employees hid the truth about his COVID status. “They lied at the airport and said none of us had COVID,” he says. “They even told me to be quiet, to try and stop coughing.” Exhausted and shaking, Balentine wrote in a group text during the long walk through the airport on a layover, “Guys, my body can’t go any further. This long transfer got me, had to stop if I go any further, I’m going to pass out. COVID is forcing me to stop.” A Voss staffer came back and rushed him to the next gate in a wheelchair. On the plane, he asked the attendants for toilet paper to wipe his runny nose.
That night, at the Edmonton hotel, he told his bosses he needed to order some bottled water. “You can drink the tap water, Shawn,” a Voss employee responded in a text. Balentine told his supervisors his doctor had advised him to go on Paxlovid, the powerful anti-viral medication. They replied that if he went to the hospital, he’d have to assume the costs, Balentine recalls.
“I’ve never run into anything this bad,” King says of the safety violations Voss allegedly engaged in. “They are telling the Canadian government that they’re obeying the rules when they’re literally spreading COVID. Nobody knows who on that plane may have gotten sick because of him.” Voss didn’t respond to a request for comment.
A surge in mid-July spurred the city of L.A. to extend COVID safety protocols to the end of September. “Producers and unions have responded in a very positive way to protect all cast and crewmembers,” says Conrad Palmisano, a veteran stunt coordinator and chair of the National Stunt and Safety Committee at SAG-AFTRA. But, he adds, “There are always some who cheat.”
Even as the pandemic abates, some version of the safety protocols in place will likely remain. In fact, the return-to-work pact between studios and unions on Sept. 30 was extended temporarily as talks continue over how to fine-tune the health and safety rules. “These rules, even when they’re more onerous than they could be, have allowed people to continue to make large sums of money,” says Caddell, meaning it’s less expensive to test constantly than to shut down a production because someone — or many people — gets COVID. The question now is whether all the measures are anything more than window dressing.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified CineMedics as the defendant in Georgia Hesse’s lawsuit. The defendant in the lawsuit is HBO. And Bobby King was previously referred to as Bobby Clark.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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