The omicron wave has peaked across the country, and states including New York and California are once again easing up on their COVID restrictions.
But in the entertainment industry, there is no rush to get back to “normal.” The studios and unions are largely holding firm on the set of COVID production protocols that has been in place since the summer of 2020. Both sides are in talks this week on adjustments to the plan — which is formally set to expire on Sunday. But while there may be some tweaks, nobody is expecting the restrictions to be significantly loosened.
“I don’t expect we’re going to relax the protocols until both sides feel comfortable that we’re in a different stage,” said Steve Dayan, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 399.
Theaters in New York will soon have a green light to lift mask mandates. But patrons will still have to show proof of vaccination, and some theaters may have to weigh whether patrons will feel more comfortable keeping masks in place for now. Broadway theaters are keeping their mask mandates in place through April 30. Los Angeles is expected to keep most indoor masking requirements, such as in theaters, until at least late March.
For the studios, the vast infrastructure of testing, contact tracing and safety compliance has come at a steep cost. According to a study by the California Film Commission, big-budget films have had to set aside 5% to 6.5% of their budgets for spending related to COVID protocols.
The studios are looking to transition from PCR tests to cheaper, faster antigen tests, according to a source familiar with the talks. The studios are also keen to limit the number of days they have to pay workers who are not at work, either because they are on quarantine or getting pre-employment testing, according to union sources. Quarantine periods have already been shortened from 10 days after an exposure down to five days for those who are vaccinated, in keeping with updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On vaccines, it is possible that the new agreement could require boosters in order for workers to be considered fully vaccinated.
The studios would also love to be able to impose a vaccine mandate across all zones of production — which is the cheapest and most effective way to control the spread of the virus. Under the current regime, they are allowed to mandate vaccines only in “Zone A” — that is, on set.
The below-the-line unions have resisted a requirement that would extend beyond that, out of concern that a fraction of their membership would be forced out of work. The unions are under some pressure on that issue, but it appears there will not be much movement on the subject in this round of talks.
The studios have already switched to N95 or KN95 masks, upgrading from cloth masks, also as a result of updated CDC guidance, and have increased the rate of testing in both Zone A and Zone B.
Rebecca Rubin contributed to this story.