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COVID Surge, Reinstated LA County Mask Mandate Complicate Hollywoods Return to Work Talks

The renewed indoor mask mandate coming from Los Angeles County Department of Public Health this weekend is unlikely to have a big effect on production in the region because strict COVID safety rules on set have not been relaxed since they were implemented last fall.

But the surge in the infection rate in LA County does complicate ongoing negotiations between the major studios and key Hollywood unions on how the industry will eventually loosen safety protocols. Filming in the time of COVID comes with a significant budget expense for frequent testing, personal protective equipment and a compliance officer for each production.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has been in talks with the Directors Guild of America, IATSE, SAG-AFTRA, Teamsters and Basic Crafts for weeks on how those rules would change in the post-pandemic period. However, the flare-up that had been predicted to follow the July 4th holiday has ensured that any projections of a date for easing requirements on L.A.-based productions will be delayed. That’s a big shift from the mood in the Golden State last month when many restrictions were lifted on June 15 and the vaccination rate was rising at a fast clip.

The tightening of standards by public health officials in Southern California and other regions is undoubtedly “a setback to the timetable,” in the words of a studio executive source who has been close to the talks. The sides already agreed to extend for an unspecified amount of time the existing COVID work rules that were to have expired on June 30 because the negotiations have been going so slowly.

Los Angeles County’s reinstated rule, which also applies to fully vaccinated people, goes into affect Saturday night, and is designed to curb the alarming rise in cases because of the Delta variant. According to public health statistics, there were 1,537 new cases reported in L.A. County on Thursday, a sharp rise from the lows of June before the variant took hold.

But for some who work in production in Los Angeles, who weathered the coronavirus surge of December and January, when the city was at the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, told Variety that this won’t change a thing for them. One executive producer who oversees multiple shows says, “It doesn’t affect us, because are all masked up all the time anyway.”

One below-the-line member of the crew hasn’t observed any increased laxness on set, even as the numbers went down in the spring. “None of the rules have changed for production work,” this person says. “On set, we still have to wear masks all the time, even outside. And oftentimes face shields as well.”

As the number of positive cases ebbed in May and June, the unions and studios were in talks to change protocols for production during COVID-19. “The unions were discussing changes, but nothing came of it,” a prolific TV director tells Variety, reflecting the industry’s frustration at the slow pace of talks even before the latest surge in infection rates and hospitalizations. “And now we have this new reality,” the director said.

The wrangling over COVID safety rules for production also comes at a time when the city of Los Angeles and state of California are aggressively trying to keep production in Los Angeles and in California by adding to the state’s film and TV tax credit program, as well as adding new tax incentives to boost soundstage construction and to lure productions away from other areas of the country and Canada. Since the winter, when the vaccines began to have a positive impact on the spread of COVID, Los Angeles has seen a spike in production. 

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