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Why Are Film Shoots Allowed When Outdoor Dining Isn't?

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Screenshot from Angela Marsden's viral Instagram post. She's pointing to a film crew craft services area that's currently allowed to operate, when she had to shut down outdoor dining at her restaurant in the same parking lot.
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When Angela Marsden, owner of the Pineapple Hill Saloon & Grill in Sherman Oaks posted this video on her restaurant's Instagram feed, she was on the verge of tears, shocked that while outdoor dining was being shut down in Los Angeles County, craft service tables for a film production were being set up next door.

"I'm losing everything. Everything I own is being taken away from me, and they set up a movie company right next to my outdoor patio," she says in the video.

The film shoot's craft services area looks a lot like her restaurant's outdoor dining set-up: a series of tents shielding socially distanced picnic tables. For Marsden, the whole thing felt unfair. Why is the same action -- eating outdoors with people -- subject to two different sets of rules?

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It would have been easy for Marsden to blame Hollywood for this inequity, but her message was directed at California lawmakers:

"Mayor Garcetti and Gavin Newsom [are] responsible for every single person that doesn't have unemployment, does not have a job and all the businesses that are going under. We need your help. We need somebody to do something about this!"

Her video went viral and a Go Fund Me page set up to raise money for her restaurant has now received more than $200,000 in donations.

Marsden had a point. Why are film productions allowed to continue while the state closes down so many other industries, due to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases?

Colleen Bell, executive director of the California Film Commission tells KPCC's Take Two that it's because, unlike restaurant patrons, the people who come in and out of productions are known quantities. They can be tested, tracked and isolated, if necessary.

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"The sets require frequent testing, personal protective equipment, contract tracing when positive tests arise," Bell says. "It's not a public-facing industry. It's highly controlled and there have been relatively low transmission rates on sets since production resumed."

In September, a Return To Work agreement was struck between the Alliance of Motion Picture Television Producers, the group that represents studios, and Hollywood's guilds and labor unions. Epidemiologists and public health officials reportedly helped create the protocols for pandemic-era productions.

The new agreement was an elaboration of a joint report released in June by the DGA, SAG-AFTRA, IATSE and Teamsters' Committees for COVID-19 Safety Guidelines.

We read all 57 pages of the Return to Work (RTW) agreement so you don't have to. Here are some of the main takeaways i.e. what film sets are doing to keep the virus from spreading:

  • Frequent testing. All film shoot employees have to be tested before arriving on set. There are specific requirements for how many hours they need to be tested before then (48 to 72 hours, generally) and which tests are acceptable.
  • Frequent temperature checks. The RTW agreement reads, "Employees may be subject to temperature checks, to take place at least once per day. Employees who do not pass the temperature check will not be permitted on the premises and will be directed to contact their healthcare provider."
  • A Zone-Based System. Sets must have more specific rules for who different members of the cast and crew can interact with. For example, since actors are the only ones on set who can't always wear a mask (seeing as they are acting), they are in the most protected zone -- Zone A. The RTW agreement reads: "During employment, 'Zone A' employees who work five (5) or more days in a week shall be tested for COVID-19 at least three (3) times per week."
  • COVID-19 Compliance Supervisors. They must be hired for every production. They are responsible for COVID-19 safety compliance and enforcement on each production. The LA Times has more details on what these folks actually do.
  • PPE. "Producers shall provide all employees with face coverings to be worn at all times on the job site, except when eating, drinking, or when their job duties prevent them from doing so."
  • Paid leave. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 or who has had contact with someone who tests positive or who is caring for someone with COVID-19 must receive paid leave.

Got all that? If you're still confused or frustrated, this leaked audio of Tom Cruise chastising Mission Impossible crew members in the UK for not obeying COVID protocols might be the perfect encapsulation of what being on set right now is like.

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Maybe Tom said it best: "We are not shutting this F#$%6@ movie down!"

You can hear more coverage of how Hollywood is navigating the pandemic in the On The Lot segment of KPCC's Take Two.