How Coronavirus Fears Are Changing Red Carpet Etiquette

TNT's 21st Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards --Behind The Scenes Day 3 and Red Carpet Rollout-Getty - H 2020
Michael Buckner/WireImage

An event publicist walks down the red carpet to alert members of the press behind the stanchion that a high-profile guest will soon be standing in front of them. The star wants to do interviews but does not want to shake hands, hug or have any close contact. Elsewhere, air kisses are given extra space and some attendees are sharing hand sanitizer.

Though there are no confirmed cases in Los Angeles County, coronavirus fears have officially hit Hollywood.

On a day dominated by headlines about a plummeting stock market (the worst since 2008), new quarantines (Italy to Iran) and event cancellations (Facebook’s F8, the MWC and Beijing Fashion Week), The Hollywood Reporter covered an event in Beverly Hills amid a coronavirus outbreak that is causing panic in many parts of the world. The event — "An Unforgettable Evening," put on by the Women’s Cancer Research Fund — honored Renée Zellweger and drew such A-listers as Tom Ford, Rita Wilson and Jonas Brothers. Per the aforementioned publicist's fair warning, it was clear even before the event started that many guests wanted to steer clear of contracting any sickness while supporting the fight to cure breast cancer. But the methods with which those on the red carpet are responding depends on whom you ask.

Wilson, for one, wasn’t taking any chances. While speaking to members of the press, she avoided air kisses and kept her arms crossed over her chest. “It’s a cautionary measure, yes,” she said. Also preventive: Wilson postponed a series of concerts with Sugarland’s Kristian Bush that the pair was set to perform on U.S. military bases on South Korea. “Many of those [coronavirus] cases are very, very close to one of the bases where we were going to be performing, so we’re going to postpone. We’ll do it sometime in the fall now, or maybe the spring, but we’re definitely going back because I want to do it,” she said. BTS and Green Day also confirmed shows in Asia would be canceled or rescheduled

Still, it was business as usual for others. One guest noticed that Paris Hilton was kissing and cozying up to boyfriend Carter Reum while also posing cheek-to-cheek with selfie-seeking fans. As for Loni Love, a comedian, actress and host, she’s not worried. “I have a lot of doctor friends like [TV hosts] Dr. Drew and Dr. Oz, who have educated me on coronavirus. I know it sounds crazy, but I don't think you should let things like a pandemic scare you out of living.” Love will live and continue to make the rounds at events all weekend. She plans on attending WW Presents: Oprah’s 2020 Vision – Your Life in Focus tour stop on Saturday at the Forum in Inglewood, where tens of thousands are expected to fill the venue.

Speaking of doctors, before he became a comedian, actor, host and producer, Ken Jeong worked as one. His response to THR’s question was measured, and he called attention to organizations that are monitoring the outbreak: “We’re all learning about this as we go along. With the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the World Health Organization, we really have to follow their steps at this point, because we've never experienced anything like this in a century. Everything is evolving right now.”

Jeong, who hosted "An Unforgettable Evening," said if he were still practicing medicine, his advice would be to ramp up basic hygiene practices to prevent the spread of the virus, which is believed to transmitted person-to-person through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. “Whether it's influenza or the common cold, practice frequent hand-washing and use common sense. Try not to panic, but also take the steps for isolation if there are guidelines that say so," Jeong said. "You really have to go with the flow at this point and really be informed. Knowledge is power right now.”

Per The New York Times, which is providing minute-by-minute updates, at least 56 countries have cases of the virus, with about 2,900 deaths on record from 84,000 cases. A new case was reported in Northern California on Thursday; the patient did not have any known risk factors such as having traveled internationally or interacted with someone known to be infected.

Overall, however, red carpet interactions are down in late February. Hollywood just wrapped up a hectic and condensed awards season during which there were multiple events every day, afternoon and evening. It was not uncommon to see a nominee four times in a day. 

But now, aside from premieres, concerts and fundraisers, there are fewer high-profile events on the entertainment calendar. That was good news for Zellweger, who took another turn in the spotlight Thursday night to accept a Courage Award. She, too, kept physical contact at a minimum, but that was because she's recovering from a cold. Instead, she offered side hugs.

The night ended just as it started — with a warning: After speaking to THR, Zellweger walked away saying, “Now, wash your hands! Wash your hands!”