The rules allow for productions to resume as soon as Friday, although in reality most are not expected to get underway until July or August.
The county’s rules set out stringent directives for social distancing on sets. It mandates the use of cloth face coverings by cast and crew, orders that only “essential cast and crew” be allowed on set, and prescribes that actors should wash their hands before scenes.
Any prolonged physical contact — i.e. fight scenes or sex scenes — is “discouraged,” and actors are mandated to keep “as silent as possible to avoid spreading droplets through talking.” Crowd scenes are also discouraged. Actors and musicians who cannot wear face coverings during performances should keep eight feet apart.
The rules allow for paid staff to serve as audience members — for talk shows or sitcoms, for instance — but mandates that they sit six feet apart, and that the audiences be limited to 25% of the available space. The rules also state that the same group of employees should be used as the audience throughout a production.
The rules also say that actors should apply their own makeup, if possible. Craft service buffets are forbidden, and food service is required to be single-serving only.
In general, the county’s rules are more strict than the entertainment industry’s “white paper,” which was issued last week. The white paper used language like “whenever possible,” and “consider options,” while the county’s order uses the words “must” and “shall.”
Universal film chairman Donna Langley, who served as an industry representative in the county’s reopening task force, issued a statement calling the rules “a significant step in getting our industry back to work in Los Angeles County.”
“On behalf of all us at NBCUniversal, we thank the County Board of Supervisors and Mayor (Eric) Garcetti for their continued commitment to the economic recovery of our region, and the County Public Health Department for their tireless efforts to help protect the health of our community,” Langley said. “Teams across the Studios, production companies, guilds, and unions in every facet of our business have shown, and will continue to show, innovation and creativity in bringing film, television and digital production safely back to Los Angeles.”
Before production can restart, the below-the-line unions must also agree to a series of detailed protocols.
Another obstacle is whether productions will be able to obtain insurance. Those productions that were underway in March, or were about to get underway, should be able to resume under their old insurance policies. Those policies — which cover interruptions in production due to “imminent peril” and an order from a “civil authority” — should even cover some of the additional costs required to make productions safer, says Bob Jellen, managing director for entertainment at HUB International.
“If it’s a blanket policy, and they had coverage prior to COVID-19, then they are going to start up production and should be covered for the additional costs they incur subject to the limits in the policy,” Jellen said.
But any new productions — that had not obtained insurance by early March — are going to find it difficult or impossible to obtain coverage for future COVID-19 shutdowns. That could make it difficult especially for independent filmmakers to get bank financing, and could impede production even at some of the smaller studios.
“The independents are not going to be able to get financing or bonding,” said Brian Kingman, managing director of the entertainment practice at Arthur J. Gallagher. “Right now the insurance companies haven’t figured it out.”
Some in the industry have called on Congress to create a federal backstop for virus coverage, which would allow insurers to sell policies again that cover COVID-19 shutdowns. A bill has been introduced to do that, but nobody is counting on that happening any time soon.
“I don’t expect the government is going to come in and provide some relief in the near future,” Jellen said.
SAG-AFTRA has advised its members that some productions have asked employees to sign waivers, releasing them of liability for COVID-19 infection. The union instructed its members not to sign.