Oscars 2022: Irish contingent among pre-ceremony Covid outbreaks

Belfast’s Kenneth Branagh and Ciarán Hinds have been isolating in New York after testing positive

A marked escalation in Covid infections is hampering efforts to restore normality before tonight's Academy Awards. As the red carpet is rolled out at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, the organisers will be pondering an apparent outbreak at the recent Bafta awards.

The Irish contingent has been hit. Kenneth Branagh, Oscar nominated as director and writer of Belfast, and Ciarán Hinds, up in best supporting actor for the same film, both tested positive after the British awards and have been isolating in New York. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, producers of the Oscar-nominated animation The Mitchells vs The Machines, were also among the Bafta attendees diagnosed with Covid.

Audience members will need to show two negative PCR tests and proof of vaccination in order to attend the event. Responding to a rise of 130 per cent in test specimens showing the highly transmissible BA.2 Omicron strain in LA, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences issued new protocols on Friday.

“Those who tested positive for Covid-19 and are within a zero to five-day window from the date of their first positive test are not permitted to attend under any circumstances,” the document explained.

Controversially, the Academy will not, however, be requiring presenters and performers – as opposed to those merely in the audience – to show proof of vaccination. "We're still encouraging people to be vaccinated to be a part of the show and we are putting our attendees' health and safety first," Will Packer, producer of the show, explained.

“But the decision was made by the Academy not to mandate it, not to dictate if you participate, then this must be your choice. I think that was the right decision.”

Those seated in the area next to the stage will be positioned some distance apart. Masks will be required only in the mezzanine section.

The partying continued in the stubborn shadow of the plague, but there were alterations in attitude and procedure. Over the last decade and a half, the Oscar Wilde Awards, honouring the Irish contribution to film, has become a pre-Oscars staple at the offices of Bad Robot, JJ Abrams's production offices, in coastal Santa Monica.

This year, in order to permit greater distancing, the event was moved to The Ebell of Los Angeles, an educational establishment closer to the Hollywood buzz. Adam McKay, director and writer of Don't Look Up, Jamie Dornan, star of Belfast, Dónall Ó Héalai, ubiquitous actor, and Kenneth Branagh, still isolating elsewhere, were among those honoured at the event on Thursday night.

Dornan talked about Belfast’s arrival, largely unheralded, to the Telluride Film Festival six months ago and the subsequent awards carnival. “I’m trying to enjoy the moment, but it’s been a long moment, from Telluride in September when it was just Ken and I out there, now it’s been months,” he told the BBC. “I think I’ll look back on it and it will have even more resonance of how special it’s been to be a part of this movie.”

Belfast, nominated in seven categories, arrives at the Oscars as a marked underdog in all but one of those races. Branagh still stands a decent chance of winning best original screenplay for his autobiographical script concerning a family negotiating an increasingly violent Belfast in the late 1960s. Kerry's Jessie Buckley, nominated for The Lost Daughter, will struggle to get past Ariana DeBose, runaway favourite for West Side Story, in the best supporting actress category.

The big Oscar story of the last few weeks has been the rise and rise of Sian Heder's CODA. Once considered a rank outsider, the Apple TV release, concerning a deaf fishing family in Massachusetts, is now joint favourite for best picture with Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog.