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L.A. health official calls for a longer production pause

Cars line up as Angelenos try to get vaccinated in Inglewood.
Cars line up as Angelenos try to get vaccinated in Inglewood.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles’ top health department official urged the film and TV industry to pause production until the end of the month.

While most studios had put many shows on an extended hiatus until this week, L.A. County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer has asked for the pause to continue until the end of the month.

“We’re going to ask that everyone continue to do their very best, halt those activities that aren’t absolutely essential until we get to the end January and we can be certain that we’re starting to actually see significant reduction in transmission,” Ferrer said in a news conference Wednesday.

During Wednesday’s news conference, Ferrer thanked the industry for implementing COVID-19 safety protocols and said if studios had to film, they should avoid high risk situations, where people are not able to wear face coverings and are very close together.

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The health department head made a similar request earlier this month in a call with representatives of the Motion Picture Assn. and union representatives, according to people who attended the meeting.

It is unclear whether or not the studios participating in the call would heed the request as there was no agreement on the recommendation. The MPA, which counts Walt Disney Studios, Netflix and Warner Bros. among its members, acknowledged the request and said decisions would be made on a production-by-production basis, with any filming adhering to the industry’s strict COVID-19 safety guidelines.

Despite safety protocols, film producers and unions are still grappling with how and when to get back to work after a holiday pause.

“Filming decisions are being made on a production-by-production basis, and all productions are following the strict COVID-19 health and safety protocols that were bargained by the unions and studios with input from experts and have resulted in one of the safest working environments in the country,” the MPA said in a statement.

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Many productions had already prepared to postpone a return to work this month, delaying some productions from Jan. 4 until Jan. 11 or Jan. 18. As California passed 3 million confirmed novel coronavirus cases Tuesday, an ongoing high number of cases in the region as well as a push to fire up vaccinations for millions of people is adding pressure on Hollywood not to tax hospitals further.

While proponents of filming locally stress that film sets are safe, others in the industry acknowledge accidents on sets could lead to crew not being treated or further adding stress to the healthcare system. Some producers feel obligated to continue filming as they face hard deadlines to deliver shows or potentially lose actors to competing scheduling requirements.

TV Shows including Showtime’s “Shameless,” “911” and the NBC hit “This Is Us” were among a group of reality and scripted productions filming in L.A. this week, according to FilmLA, which handles film permits for the city and county. However, the organization said many producers had canceled or rescheduled previously approved film permits.

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On Dec. 24, the L.A. County Department of Public Health asked the industry “to strongly consider pausing work for a few weeks during this catastrophic surge.” But the department stopped short of forcing productions to stop, leaving unions and studios to figure out how to proceed. In the state, the film industry sector has been listed as part of an essential workforce exempt from stay-at-home orders since the start of the pandemic.

Health officials have said there are encouraging signs of hospitalizations and case rates are decreasing but warned against complacency as the state rolled out vaccinations.

A coalition of medical professionals and TV writers believe shows could help educate diverse audiences toward wearing masks and getting vaccinated.

Unions have been forced to strike a balance between protecting their members from potential unsafe working conditions and not stopping those desperate to earn an income after months of production shutdowns. Many workers in the industry feel it is safe to be on set.

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The film and television industry has developed safety protocols that have kept novel coronavirus outbreaks to a minimum, according to data from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers viewed by The Times.

Commercial production has accounted for most of the activity. SAG-AFTRA and a group representing advertisers “strongly encouraged” producers of commercials and independent films to also delay their work as dozens of COVID-19 outbreaks in the country were linked to film productions.

After negotiations this fall, the Assn. of Independent Commercial Producers agreed to implement testing protocols starting Dec. 15. Crew members had been nervous about a lack of safety measures on commercial productions after an assistant director working on an Austin, Texas, shoot died from COVID-19.

Film activity in the region has been falling. Film permit applications fell to 613 in December 2020, from 965 in December 2019 and compared to 813 permits in November 2020.

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Times Staff Writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.


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