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TLC’s nonfiction medical drama My 600-lb Life continued to film across the U.S. this week with severely obese castmembers despite social distancing recommendations and high-risk factors for the show’s stars amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Between March 20 and 26, the TLC show was actively filming in at least three states — Texas, Florida and Mississippi — documents provided to The Hollywood Reporter and interviews with sources with firsthand knowledge of the show revealed.
Though these particular states’ coronavirus policies are patchwork-like at present — multiple counties in Texas and Florida have “stay-at-home” orders and Mississippi does not yet have any such orders in place — the U.S. government and state governments are recommending social distancing amid the outbreak nationwide.
Megalomedia, the Austin, Texas-based production company behind the series, responded to an inquiry from THR on Friday by stating: “The health and safety of Megalomedia’s show participants and employees is always our top priority, now more than ever. We continue to comply with all local, state, and federal guidelines that cover this unprecedented pandemic. My 600-lb Life is not filming with a single participant at this time.”
TLC added, “The safety of our show talent, crews and employees is our top priority. Production on My 600-lb Life has stopped and will not resume until the crisis is resolved. It is our sincere wish that our talent, crews and their families are being safe and staying healthy during this unprecedented time.”
Call sheets and wrap sheets provided to THR showed the series was filming at different points between March 20 and 26. Sources say that they fear the number of crewmembers required to shoot the show and the rigors of production put the show’s subjects, many of whom are already particularly vulnerable, at increased risk for the virus.
My 600-lb Life follows morbidly obese individuals over the course of the year as they seek and undergo gastric bypass surgery, an operation that poses major risks to patients and carries potentially significant side effects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared people with severe obesity (a Body Mass Index equal to or higher than 40) and/or underlying conditions including diabetes, liver disease or renal failure to be at risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
Sources provided text of internal company group chats and a recent hot sheet where crewmembers mention that one subject’s hospital was on lockdown and was not letting the crew in to film. That same castmember refused to take a trip to Houston for the show out of fear of the coronavirus. The castmember was advised not to mention the virus during filming, a hot sheet shows. Another castmember was described in a group chat as feeling anxious about the coronavirus and attending a doctor’s appointment for the show.
“These castmembers have a compromised immune system already. They’re not OK. They’re not feeling comfortable,” one source says. “It’s super dangerous and none of us wants to be the person who gives it to the castmember.”
The show’s crewmembers, who are generally nonunion freelancers, are also at risk for spreading and catching the virus during production. “Everyone’s scared to lose their jobs,” this source explains about why crewmembers continue to take these gigs.
On a television set, “Everyone’s putting everyone else at risk, so it definitely doesn’t run in one direction,” Dr. Joseph Ladapo, an associate professor of medicine in the division of general internal medicine and health services research at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, says when given the specifics of this story. “You don’t need a medical degree to know that.”
Essential staff also continue to work at the Austin production office of Megalomedia. Though the city implemented a “Stay Home – Work Safe” order effective Tuesday night, “I’ve been advised that we fall under ‘essential business’ (S6/ p.v. ‘News, Television & Radio’),” Megalomedia executive vp Paul Hogan wrote in an email to staff Tuesday. “However, out of an abundance of caution as well as for the safety and well being of all of our employees, we’re moving towards establishing and maintaining ‘Minimum Basic Operations’ (S6/pG.,[)] as necessary to keep our business sustained.” Employees would have to have permission from several staff members to work from the office in the future, he added.
Before that Tuesday email, some employees said they felt discouraged from working from home. In a March 19 email titled “COVID-19 Update 3.19,” sent three days after President Donald Trump told Americans to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people and eight days after the World Health Organization labeled the coronavirus a pandemic, Hogan praised “the people [at the company] who refused to allow panic and fear grip them.”
After naming some individuals, Hogan wrote, “There’s not a remote option for you all.”
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Tracee Ellis Ross