“It is a construction site. There’s no question about that,” he says. “There was no legal impediment to us continuing to build. In fact, if we’d wanted to, we could have continued to film. I just felt at that time that the risk was too great. But on balance, looking at the situation currently, that risk is very low.”
Although no directives were issued to halt film and television production, most of the sector has shut down since the emergence of coronavirus as a serious health threat in Australia.
Filming of MasterChef, however, has continued throughout, and Neighbours returned to production last Monday after a four-week hiatus. The American feature film Children of the Corn also continued, under strict social-distancing and hygiene protocols.
When The Block resumes, it, too, will have new safety precautions in place, including limits on how many people can be in any one room at a time.
All cast and crew will be given a flu vaccine, and a health and hygiene portal has been established at the front of the site, through which all visitors will have to pass. Cress calls this “the ET suite”, in honour of the plastic cordon sanitaire erected around Elliott’s house in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 movie.
“It’s basically a bubble that everybody attending our site is going to come through, so they can be temperature checked by a nurse, and miked up with sanitised microphones by sound recordists wearing visors.”
Milliner Chantelle Ford, who won The Block with then-partner Steve O’Donnell in 2014, has made personal protective equipment, which will mostly be used when cast and crew are offsite shopping (by appointment only).
Cress says the bespoke protective gear was necessary “because we didn’t want to go out and take PPE gear from frontline health workers”. They have also made their own hand sanitiser, The Block Brew, “because we go through so much of it”.
There’s no catering tent – all meals come individually prepackaged from one of the show’s many sponsors – and with much of the building phase completed, construction workers on site have been reduced from about 40 to fewer than 10. Including cast and crew, the total number of people on the 3000 square metre site is now under 50.
As a “massive Star Wars fanboy” Cress sees the restart date as auspicious. “My catch cry for the past few weeks has been ‘May the Fourth be with us’,” he says.
Any producer has to be prepared for surprises, and be ready to adapt, he says. But there’s no question COVID-19 has thrown a massive curve ball at the entire industry.
“Who knows what’s coming next year,” he says. “But after going through this, they can send a Star Destroyer and we’ll be ready for it.”
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.