COVID-19 rules on Canadian TV and film sets cause tension

Vancouver-based actor Steven Roberts says mandatory vaccine requirements are just another thing stacking the odds against performers like him.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Early in the pandemic, the film and television industry emerged as a leader in COVID-19 safety while other sectors struggled to recover. Its success was in part owing to the co-operative nature of filmmaking. Wardrobe, set decoration, lighting, camera and talent – the departments that collaborate to bring a production to life – applied that same approach to health and safety. It also helped that productions spared no expense in finding solutions, from creating entirely new positions for COVID-19 compliance officers to footing the bill for weekly tests.

But more than two years later, the rules of engagement have changed, and the film sector’s unified approach has become a complicated patchwork of policies and guidelines that are causing acrimony among workers.

“There is now a system that allows for more flexibility,” says John Lewis, international vice-president and director of Canadian affairs with International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). “So, there isn’t a consistent policy from show to show.” He adds that many of the workers in the industry are “fed up” with the requirements.

When the cameras started rolling again in June, 2020, it was under strict adherence to health and safety protocols. Diligent mask wearing, social distancing, daily health screenings and robust testing regimens became the norm. Lewis says it was expensive and labour intensive, but effective. “We had incredibly low infection rates.”

Those protocols were established in a return-to-work agreement between the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers and several Hollywood stakeholders, including the Directors Guild of America, IATSE, and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). Because so much of Canada’s work comes from U.S. projects, that agreement has become the industry standard in this country as well, with some exceptions.

As the pandemic evolved, so too has the agreement. A July, 2021, amendment, for instance, gave employers the right to mandate vaccinations for those working in “Zone A” – the area on set where performers are unmasked and therefore more vulnerable to the virus’s spread. The latest revision, announced on Jan. 27, relaxes COVID-19 testing rules for workers in Zones B and C, and extends the agreement through April 1, 2023.

In Canada, employers such as studios and production companies can adopt even stricter protocols, as long as they adhere to provincial human rights and privacy laws. Making matters more complicated, the agreement includes provisions where regional considerations like surging COVID-19 related hospitalizations can trigger pivot points for production rules.

An actor or director falling ill can mean a logistical nightmare and expensive delays, and many insurance policies don’t cover COVID-19 related production shutdowns. The federal government introduced the Short-Term Compensation Fund in September, 2020. The program, administered by Telefilm Canada, fills gaps in coverage for Canadian productions whose insurance policies exclude COVID-related interruptions. In a statement, the Canadian Media Producers Association says the measure has been “a lifeline” to the production sector. The support is temporary, however, as the fund expires at the end of March. With so much at stake, many companies are erring on the side of caution.

For actors and crew who work on multiple projects, it can be difficult to keep up with the medley of protocols.

“It’s frustrating,” says Steven Roberts. The Vancouver-based actor says he booked a role on the Showtime television series Yellowjackets only to be forced to walk away when he wouldn’t get the COVID-19 booster shots required by the show’s studio, Entertainment One.

Yellowjackets is one of five productions with confirmed mandatory vaccination policies listed on the Union of BC Performers/ACTRA website.

Employers aren’t allowed to ask about someone’s vaccine status before they’ve been hired. So, actors and their agents are notified before auditions whether vaccines and boosters are required as a condition of employment.

Roberts, who has worked as an actor for more than a decade, says the mandatory vaccine requirements are just another thing stacking the odds against performers like him. “It’s a very small community and people are terrified to even speak out,” he says.

In an industry where the colour of someone’s hair can decide whether or not they get the job, boosters and vaccines have become yet another consideration for actors. “The hard part about working in film and television … is there are no guarantees of employment,” says Alistair Hepburn, the executive director of ACTRA Toronto. While Hepburn says the union doesn’t require its members to get vaccinated, it recommends those who can, do. He estimates about 60 per cent of shows currently filming in Ontario have some form of vaccine requirement.

The best piece of advice for any performer, he says, is “make yourself the most employable person that you possibly can.”

The vaccine rules have drawn criticism from Fran Drescher, the President of SAG-AFTRA. In a letter published in the latest edition of the union’s magazine, Drescher promised “help is on the way” for members who feel discriminated against because of their choice to remain unvaccinated or unboosted.

Still, it’s clear the pandemic is not over yet. This year’s Critics Choice awards announced all attendees would have to submit a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of the event after several stars, including Jamie Lee Curtis and Colin Farrell, announced they had tested positive for the virus after attending the Golden Globes on Jan. 10.

Both Hepburn and Lewis say negotiations around return-to-work protocols are ongoing, but things seem to be moving toward fewer restrictions. In November, Disney walked back vaccine mandates on the sets of several of its television series, including Grey’s Anatomy. Netflix and Paramount also relaxed vaccine rules last year.

“The ability for all members to work on all sets is the ideal place where we definitely want to be,” Hepburn says.

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