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In the shadow of COVID-19, a toll on entertainment workers

NEW YORK — Like so many, the pandemic upended life for actor and dancer Rena Riffel. The Los Angeles-based performer needed help with rent, utilities and counselling when jobs suddenly dried up.

NEW YORK — Like so many, the pandemic upended life for actor and dancer Rena Riffel. The Los Angeles-based performer needed help with rent, utilities and counselling when jobs suddenly dried up.

“Being an artist, we are already very fragile with our finances," she said. ”It's like an ebb and flow. So when the pandemic happened and everything shut down, for myself and for everyone else, there’s really no hope. There's no opportunity."

Riffel's experience is echoed in a new survey by The Actors Fund that illustrates the depths of need created by the COVID-19 pandemic in the arts community. Released Thursday, it reveals financial hardship, food insecurity and lost housing.

The survey of 7,163 people helped by the organization — including Riffel — found that 76% of respondents lost income and 40% reported reduced food security.

Some 28% fell behind in rent or mortgage and 20% were forced to change housing. Ten per cent of respondents had to sell a large asset, such as a house or a car.

“We see the pandemic as having a long tail on its impact on performing artists and entertainment professionals, and especially people involved in live entertainment,” Joe Benincasa, CEO of The Actors Fund, said to The Associated Press.

A massive 79% of respondents reported that COVID-19 had a negative impact on their mental health, with increased feelings of anxiety or depression.

“For people working in the gig economy, not always knowing when they’re going to work again — that stress — the impact is tremendous,” said Benincasa.

The Fund provides a national safety net for performing arts and entertainment professionals in the fields of film theatre, television, music, opera, radio and dance.

Last year, it served more than 40,000 individuals, a 71% increase from 2019. It distributed more than $19 million in direct cash to about 15,000 individuals.

The Fund helped Riffel get a grant to cover living expenses, gave her financial advice, pointed her to more schooling and how to pay for it, and offered workshops to broaden her skill set and supplied wellness counselling.

“It just really helped me stay focused and continue to work on myself as an artist and being creative,” she said. “And just really remain hopeful. I think that was the key to it all: Just know that things are going to get better.”

The survey, which has a margin of error of plus/minus 1.2%, was conducted by Morey Consulting. The median household income among all respondents was $34,186.

Benincasa credited the work done by the Fund in the years before the pandemic for keeping the loss of health insurance coverages relatively lower than anticipated. Only 10% of respondents reported that they lost health insurance and have not had it replaced.

He said the marketplace provided by the Affordable Care Act was one reason the rate was low, as well as the Fund's trained counsellors who were able to find clients affordable health care.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday that Broadway theatres can reopen Sept. 14. “Phantom of the Opera,” Broadway’s longest-running show, announced Wednesday that it would resume performances Oct. 22, with tickets going on sale Friday. More shows are expected to circle return dates in the coming weeks. Actors’ Equity Association, the national labour union representing more than 51,000 actors and stage managers in live theatre, said the news meant the theatre community is “one step closer to the safe reopening” of Broadway.

But Benincasa warned that for those in the arts community, more bad numbers are likely to be generated in the coming months. The Fund is preparing for a surge in requests for direct financial assistance around housing.

“People will be slow to get back on their feet. They’ve accumulated debt. They’ve maxed out credit cards. They have rent and mortgages to catch up on,” he said.

“My sense is that the fall, when the moratorium is lifted on rent and mortgage, I think that could have a serious impact on people’s lives and that we’ll see an uptick.”

Benincasa credited his group's social workers and front-line staff for helping so many, especially at their residences, which includes a nursing home in Englewood, New Jersey. He also thanked the people who have staged concerts and events to raise money for the Fund.

“We’re proud of the community, how they stepped up to help us help people,” he said. As for the Fund's work, he said: “We’re going to stay with it.”

In Los Angeles, Riffel said things are beginning to look up for her. “I’ve started auditioning again,” she said. “Being an artist is really what feeds my soul.”

She credits The Actors Fund for helping her though the dark time. “If I wouldn’t have found my way to them, I don’t know what my life would be because I feel like my life has improved in every way.”


Mark Kennedy is at

Mark Kennedy, The Associated Press