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Preferential pandemic treatment for Hollywood

California restaurant owners complain the film industry doesn’t have to follow the same rules as everyone else

Outdoor seating at a restaurant in Pasadena, Calif., on Dec. 1 Associated Press/Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez (file)

Preferential pandemic treatment for Hollywood

In a sunny Los Angeles parking lot, the camera pans between two white canopy tents, both filled with numerous tables. Soon, one tent will be bustling with actors and crew taking a break from work on an NBCUniversal production. The other, an outdoor dining area for Pineapple Hill Saloon and Grill, will remain empty because of state coronavirus restrictions. In a social media video that went viral, saloon owner Angela Marsden lamented the unfairness of the situation, which exemplifies why many other Californians are upset, too.

On Dec. 3 as the number of COVID-19 cases increased in the state, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced stringent stay-at-home orders for any region that had fewer than 15 percent of its ICU beds open. The orders shut down not only bars and restaurants, but also playgrounds and hair salons in 11 California regions labeled “purple tier,” including Los Angeles.

The rules limit gatherings of nonrelated households and deem restaurants and bars nonessential, so restaurateurs such as Marsden cannot offer even socially distanced patio service. But the state considers the entertainment industry essential, according to regulations Newsom issued in the spring.

“Tell me that this is dangerous,” Marsden said, gesturing toward her tent and crying. “But right next to me, as a slap in the face … this is safe? Everything I own is being taken away from me, and they set up a movie company right next to my outdoor patio.” Marsden said she spent $80,000 setting up the open-air dining area and adjusting to COVID-19 restrictions, but she could not afford to offer carryout food only.

In November, Newsom gave the entertainment industry another special exemption from a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew for purple tier counties. Public frustration grew when a coronavirus testing site at LA’s Union Station building closed and 500 appointments had to be rescheduled because of Miramax movie filming there. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti intervened to reopen the testing site, and the filming continued. FilmLA spokesman Philip Sokoloski called the Union Station debacle mostly just a communication problem.

Momita Sengupta, a Netflix executive, told The Hollywood Reporter that film sets follow strict safety protocols: “We are not a bar where everyone sits around with their masks off.”

Netflix and other entertainment companies also have much bigger budgets for lobbying and campaign donations than small businesses like Pineapple Hill. Six major production studios (Comcast-NBCUniversal, Walt Disney Co., Netflix, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros., Sony Pictures) and their employees gave about $800,000 to California elected officials and their campaigns, The Intercept reported.

The studios also sent lobbyists to California politicians to advocate for the industry during the pandemic. Disclosures show Sony, Paramount, Warner Bros., Disney, and the Motion Picture Association spent tens of thousands of dollars lobbying state officials for favorable essential work rules. Paramount Pictures alone spent at least $85,000.

California churches have recently found favor in court making a similar argument about unequal treatment. After the Supreme Court said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo unconstitutionally treated houses of worship more harshly than businesses, a California superior court followed suit and blocked enforcement of similar restrictions against congregations.

Some restaurants are flouting Newsom’s rules. In Corona del Mar, a city in purple tier Orange County, Rosa Rodriquez, manager of El Ranchito Mexican restaurant, told me her business has dropped by 60 percent since last year. The restaurant allows customers to eat take-out on the patio. Nearby Five Crowns restaurant put a giant tent in its parking lot for outdoor customers.

Rodriguez said all the restaurants she’s seen in Orange County are allowing outdoor dining, and she’s glad. “It looks like a double standard that movie people get to keep meeting, but restaurants are closing down and workers are losing jobs and insurance,” she said. “I want everyone to stay safe, but that’s not right.”

Marsden’s online complaints stirred up support from the community. A GoFundMe campaign to support her business had raised more than $208,000 by Tuesday morning. On Twitter, she encouraged her followers to share the love and support other local businesses and restaurant owners, too.

Sharon Dierberger

Sharon is a correspondent and reviewer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate. She has served as a university teacher, clinical exercise physiologist, homeschooling mom, businesswoman, and Division 1 athlete. She resides in Stillwater, Minn., with her husband, Bill.


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