UPDATED: When the COVID pandemic hit, superstar Will Smith launched a Snapchat show about his life under quarantine, “Will From Home.” His wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, also talked about her quarantine life on her Facebook Watch show, “Red Table Talk.”
But their staff at Westbrook Inc. reported to work. Last week, 10 staffers tested positive for COVID-19.
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The outbreak is the first significant transmission reported at a production company. It raises questions about the protocols in place to prevent infections, and whether it’s still too soon for production to restart.
Westbrook has given out relatively little information about the outbreak. In a statement issued to Variety on Thursday, the company said that production had halted on one project that involved the infected workers. The company did not identify the project.
Production continues on several other shows, which involve workers who were not infected, a company spokesperson said.
The company said that it had been following federal, state and local guidelines for its productions, including “Appendix J,” the county order that sets out strict requirements for film and TV production.
“We received 10 positive tests and the crew members quarantined and remain in quarantine,” the company told Variety on Wednesday. “All 10 people were retested and have received negative results. We will continue to follow all official guidelines and safety protocols.”
The company also said it is cooperating with a Department of Public Health investigation.
Westbrook has stopped using Rapid Reliable Testing, the firm that conducted both the original the follow-up tests, according to sources familiar with the situation.
In an interview on Friday, Anthony Capone, the president of Rapid Reliable Testing, defended the accuracy of the firm’s results. The firm collects only nasopharyngeal or mid-turbinate nasal swabs, and only relies on molecular tests, not the quicker antigen tests that can be less reliable, Capone said.
He also said it is normal for people to test negative once the virus passes through their bodies. If 10 people all tested negative after testing positive, that does not indicate a flawed test, he said.
“That happens,” he said. “Especially if the people caught it at the same time, it’s possible they go through a similar infection period and incubation period.”
Rapid Reliable Testing launched in April, and is now doing 25,000 tests a week for cities, businesses, summer camps, and entertainment venues. The company is owned by Ambulnz, a start-up that provides non-emergency medical transportation.
The firm collects samples and delivers them to one of 10 labs that perform the testing. Capone said that there has not been an issue with any of the labs. The company provides testing to 15-20 entertainment studios, he said.
“We have our (quality assurance) process,” he said. “We have not found any irregularities in the studio space in California.”
Capone declined to discuss specifics of the Westbrook Inc. outbreak, citing a non-disclosure agreement. He said the NDA precludes him from identifying his studio clients, but he disputed whether Westbrook had actually dropped his company.
“That may very well not be true,” he said. “We have not had any studio that has said, ‘You guys, you’re not doing it for us, you’re canceled.'”
Los Angeles County guidelines require that employees remain home for 10 days after testing positive. The county also requires that anyone who was in “close contact” with a person who has tested positive self-quarantine for 14 days.
The Westbrook representative said that “close contacts” had self-quarantined, but did not say how many.
Smith and Pinkett Smith founded Westbrook Inc. in 2019 along with Miguel Melendez, Kosaku Yada and Tera Hanks.
The company is the parent of Westbrook Studios, Will Smith’s film and TV production company, which is currently developing “King Richard,” in which Smith will portray Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena Williams. The company also includes Red Table Talk Productions, which produces Jada Pinkett Smith’s show, as well as Westbrook Media. Westbrook Studios is also working on the reboot of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
The outbreak was reported on the county public health website on Saturday, identifying the location as Westbrook’s offices in Calabasas. It was not clear, however, if the workers became infected at that location or elsewhere. A company rep said that the office has been closed throughout the pandemic and has not reopened.
The rep also said that none of the infected workers has shown symptoms.
The Smiths have each talked extensively about the virus on their respective platforms over the last few months. In March, Jada Pinkett Smith hosted a discussion about the science behind the coronavirus. She also talked about relationship strains caused by the virus on her show in April.
Will Smith, meanwhile, interviewed Dr. Anthony Fauci on his Snapchat quarantine show in April. He also did a Zoom concert with DJ Jazzy Jeff, who revealed that he had come down with COVID-19.
“Will and Jada are both involved in active productions that are all following strict guidelines outlined by the CDC, California State and Los Angeles County,” the company rep said.
The county discloses any outbreak of three or more staffers at “non-residential” settings. The list is heavy on “essential” employers, like food distributors, grocery stores and police agencies.
The Department of Public Health said it was unable to answer a series of questions regarding the outbreak on Thursday.
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