Entertainment industry accused of pandemic privilege as small businesses struggle

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Bars and restaurants may be closed, but the entertainment industry is finding ways to work around strict public health orders in California and New York, feeding the perception of a pandemic double-standard for the rich, famous and well-connected.

Los Angeles restaurant owner Angela Marsden drew stark attention to the discrepancy last week with her viral video showing an outdoor television production catering tent next to her patio, which was closed under the county’s coronavirus shutdown.

A day later, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” comedian Pete Davidson mocked a Staten Island pub’s shutdown protest even though the show has taken advantage of a loophole in the New York rules to bring in a live studio audience.

“The ignorance is so high that on national television, they find it funny that small-business owners are trying to feed their families while the millionaires sit in their perch,” Staten Island community leader John Tabacco said at a Monday press conference outside Mac’s Public House.

The pub has defied New York City’s ban on indoor dining on Staten Island’s South Shore, prompting Mr. Davidson to label the bar’s supporters as “babies.” “Everyone wants to go out and have fun, but there’s plenty of stuff you can do at home,” he said.

One thing you can’t do from home: Run a bar.

Calling out the pandemic privilege was New York City Council member Joe Borelli, who asked why Mr. Davidson was allowed to “abuse business owners trying to save their livelihoods” during the coronavirus shutdown while “breaking all COVID rules.”

He cited a report saying that “SNL” audience members are paid $150 each, which allows the NBC show to classify them as extras and avoid breaking the New York Health Department’s rule prohibiting live audiences “unless they consist only of paid employees, cast and crew.”

“Hey, guys, a brief word about Pete Davidson calling Staten Island business owners and workers ‘babies’ for wanting their businesses saved,” Mr. Borelli said in an online post. “Pete said that from the set of SNL, where he wore no mask, indoors, and despite assurances to the contrary, there was no social distancing from the cast, no masks, and minimal if any social distancing from the live studio audience,” Mr. Borelli said. “SNL was allowed to do this because of a loophole in the law.”

The New York Department of Health said Tuesday that “Saturday Night Live” has not received any special consideration.

“SNL must follow state COVID-19 guidelines like any other business that is open, including mask-wearing and social distancing, as well as follow all specific media production guidelines,” the department said in an email.

In Los Angeles, the restaurateur Ms. Marsden ignited national outrage Friday with a viral video showing that a production crew for an NBC television show was allowed to erect a catering tent while her patio just next door was closed under the county’s ban on outdoor dining.

“Obviously, Mayor [Eric] Garcetti has approved this being set up for a movie company,” said Ms. Marsden, owner of the Pineapple Hill Saloon & Grill. “I’m losing everything. Everything I own is being taken away from me, and they set up a movie company right next to my outdoor patio.”

NBC declined to comment on the “Saturday Night Live” sketch and the food tent, but FilmLA spokesman Philip Sokoloski confirmed Tuesday that the city of Los Angeles issued a permit for filming and catering at the location from Dec. 4-5 for “Good Girls,” a Universal Television production.

The Los Angeles County Health Department’s sweeping Nov. 27 shutdown order closed playgrounds, beaches, indoor and outdoor dining, and indoor worship but allowed music, television and movie production to continue to operate under safety protocols, classifying support personnel as “essential.”

“The State of California recognizes the Film and TV Industry as a critical infrastructure industry,” the health department said in an email. “As such, television and film productions are permitted to operate with modifications.”

In its statement, the department said the industry has a testing protocol for workers as well as strict rules for dining that include social distancing. Workers are required to eat alone at tables or in shifts.

“This is different than outdoor dining at restaurants, where non-household members sit in close proximity, for extended periods of time without wearing masks,” the statement reads. “In that circumstance, the risk of COVID-19 transmission, especially among asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic persons, is increased and an unacceptable risk at a time when LA County is experiencing a dangerous surge in cases and hospitalizations.”

Los Angeles Superior County Judge James Chalfant ruled Tuesday in favor of restaurants challenging the ban on outdoor dining, saying the county had failed to provide evidence of transmission risk, although California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s state prohibition remains in effect until at least Dec. 27.

NBC’s “Sunday Today” morning show aired a segment about Ms. Marsden but omitted her references to the production crew and catering tents. The conservative Media Research Center criticized the report as “deceptively edited.”

“Must be nice to be so above the plebs that you can get a major U.S. city to grant you special permission to allow you to exist while others go under,” said Media Research Center news analyst Nicholas Fondacaro.

Pass for MTV Video Awards

Tension between the celebrity class and the working class over COVID-19 protocols began during the April lockdown protests, when comedians including Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and Patton Oswalt mocked the demonstrators as ignorant and self-destructive.

“Months ago, late-night comics mocked anti-lockdown protesters in cruel ways. So did several celebrities,” said conservative film critic Christian Toto of the Hollywood in Toto website. “They all had plenty of money, so they could sit back and ride out the pandemic. Many blue-collar Americans can’t.”

When they do go out, stars have benefited from carve-outs. The New York Health Department granted an exemption from its quarantine rules in August allowing performers in the MTV Video Music Awards to avoid isolating for two weeks beforehand. The department compared it to the exception for professional athletes.

More than a dozen Democrats, including Mr. Newsom and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, have been caught violating their own COVID-19 protocols on dining, masks and travel, prompting accusations of hypocrisy and a two-tiered shutdown system for the haves and have-nots.

At a Tuesday press conference, Mr. Newsom did not address Ms. Marsden’s situation directly but said he had “reverence for small businesses,” citing his own background as the founder of the PlumpJack Winery.

“It breaks my heart to see videos, breaks my heart to see reports by you and others of people’s lives being torn asunder because of this pandemic, and we’re just simply trying to do our best, and I recognize it’s never good enough,” Mr. Newsom said. “But we’re not going to give up.”

In New York, “Saturday Night Live” is able to work around the ban on live audiences by paying attendees and requiring them to sign health forms, wear masks and socially distance, according to The New York Times. The rules also limit audience capacity to 25%.

Mr. Borelli said that if “Saturday Night Live” can use a loophole by paying its audience, then entertainment venues such as movie theaters, concert halls and Broadway shows should be able to reopen.

“If the state health department is OK with the loophole, shouldn’t it just be the rule for everybody?” Mr. Borelli said. “And don’t tell me it’s because they paid their audience. A paycheck isn’t a barrier to COVID. COVID is a barrier to a paycheck.”

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