“For as alarming as this sounds, we have been expecting this for weeks,” he wrote. “The numbers in the county are spiking and consequently our numbers are doing the same. But to date there remains ZERO evidence of any transmission at work. Our set continues to be one of the safest places you can be outside of your homes.”
That claim — that there was no evidence of transmission at work — angered some of the crew.
“That’s horseshit,” said one of those who tested positive. “Utter horseshit.”
The crew member said he was in close contact with other workers who also tested positive at the same time. The production was shooting at the CBS Radford lot in Studio City, which has become a COVID hotbed, with three other outbreaks reported in the last month. Initially, 16 cases were tied to the “Mythic Quest” shoot, though county health authorities later revised that number down to 12.
The outbreaks have come as the disease continues to spread out of control in Los Angeles County, with more than 22,000 cases and 138 deaths reported on Wednesday — both single-day records. The post-Thanksgiving spike has prompted state and local officials to close outdoor dining, curtail capacity at retail outlets, and shutter zoos and hair salons. But film and TV production — which has been declared an “essential” job in California — continues under protocols established to mitigate the risk on set.
The “Mythic Quest” cluster was the second time that multiple cases were reported on the same production. The show — which is produced by Lionsgate and airs on Apple TV Plus — had earlier reported a handful of crew members tested positive in November. The larger outbreak in early December forced the show to shut down as it was close to wrapping its second season.
On Dec. 4, as McElhenney was working on the last shot of the day in downtown Los Angeles, he was informed of several new positive tests and the decision was made to pause production, according to a source close to the show. His memo was sent to cast and crew the following day.
In response to this story, McElhenney’s reps provided Variety with a statement from CTEH, the environmental consulting firm hired to oversee the production’s COVID protocols.
“The show has operated in full compliance with the extensive health and safety protocols in place and all the recommendations set forth by the CTEH team of scientists and health experts,” the company stated.
Lionsgate also defended the show’s observance of the protocols: “The public health experts at CTEH and the Mythic Quest production team have and will continue to adhere to all SAG/AFTRA, DGA, Los Angeles County and CDC guidelines as well as our own extensive health & safety protocols. The health and safety of our ‘Mythic Quest’ team is our highest priority.”
A second crew member who spoke to Variety said that the production had done a good job of adhering to the protocols early on. Those rules include mask mandates, limiting the size of work groups and mandating six-foot distancing whenever possible.
But as it got toward the end of the shoot, that second crew member said they started to rush to get the job done and they slipped into their old way of doing things.
“This is our m.o. — get it done. That’s what we do,” said the crew member, who also tested positive. “But we can’t go on standard operating procedure because people are getting sick.”
He said he believes that too many people were working in close proximity, and said no one intervened to enforce the distancing requirements.
“Not a single person is surprised this spread like it did,” he said. “I don’t know how you can look at what we were doing… and say ‘This is OK.’ “
This crew member was also bothered by the production’s claim that there was no evidence of workplace transmission, adding that he was convinced he got sick at work.
The first crew member said that when he arrived at work in the final few days, he was told he couldn’t go on set right away because someone had tested positive. The area was disinfected and then work resumed. He said he asked if it was safe and was told, “If you see people working on stage, it’s safe to work.”
The regulations do not require a production to shut down after a single positive test. Instead, they state that only “close contacts” of an infected person have to go into quarantine. The second crew member said he was told he was not in close enough contact to the infected person to necessitate that.
The first crew member said he believes more should have been done once the initial test came back positive. Rather than shut down right away for a few days, work continued on set. In hindsight, the crew member questioned whether that allowed the virus to spread.
He also said that he did not believe the production consciously put people at risk, but that there was pressure to get the show completed on schedule.
“I think it was in the final push to finish this show and get everybody off CBS Radford,” he said.
The crew member said that after he tested positive, the disease appeared to have spread to other members of his household. Both crew members said the production had not communicated about the extent of the outbreak, and they learned how many people were infected from the news.
At the time McElhenney sent the Dec. 5 note to the production team, he hoped that work would resume the following day, and he sought to reassure the crew while encouraging them to make a “personal decision” about whether to come back.
“As we know, nothing is one hundred percent safe,” he wrote. “It’s all mitigated risk. Returning to work is a personal issue and I continue to encourage you all to make a personal decision. If, because of the current climate, you feel that you should not/cannot return tomorrow please let your department head know immediately so we can make arrangements for a replacement ASAP.”
The shutdown ended up lasting for 11 days, with production resuming only on Wednesday.
In a statement to Variety, McElhenney said that his assurances to the crew had been supported by science.
“Our medical staff has made every effort to ensure the health and safety of our crew,” he said. “We have all been working tirelessly to expedite the sharing of clear and accurate information in a timely manner. No decision was made nor information communicated without the science to support it. As all productions are seeing, it’s impossible to mitigate one hundred percent of the risk. CTEH, our scientists and public health advisers, and our entire production team have followed all protocols put in place by the CDC, LA County, SAG/AFTRA and the DGA. We will continue to follow the science and work in the safest way possible. We are very proud of the diligence, patience and dedication of our cast and crew.”
Showrunners and producers are facing the challenge of keeping the industry functioning under an elaborate set of restrictions set by collective bargaining and public health agencies. That has resulted in some heated moments on set, as when Tom Cruise berated crew members of “Mission: Impossible 7” for not following COVID-19 safety protocols in the U.K.
The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health said that three outbreaks at CBS Radford remain under investigation, and it is too soon to say what changes might be needed — if any — to improve the safety of operations there.
“Public Health is working with CBS to ensure that all staff and personnel follow safety protocols and guidelines in an effort to ensure that COVID-19 will not continue to spread on the studio property,” a department spokesperson said. “As these are current outbreak investigations, we will not comment on any ongoing recommendations until the investigations are closed.”
(Pictured: “Mythic Quest”)