Egypt's soap operas defy a deadly virus for Ramadan prime time. But at what cost?

A billboard for a Ramadan TV series pictured in Cairo in 2018.

(CNN)Dozens of actors and film crew members crammed into a small hair salon in an upscale Cairo neighborhood in early April. They were racing to finish filming a TV serial scheduled to premiere during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts next week.

The narrow streets of the Egyptian capital were a beehive of activity with ​dozens of crew members moving up and down the road or resting on plastic chairs on the sidewalks. ​
In previous years, the crowd, the six trucks and 32 vehicles lining the surrounding streets would have attracted passers-by hoping to see their favorite film stars. It is a common sight in the weeks before Ramadan, a high season for TV, when crews work 16-20 hour days to meet their deadlines.
    But at a time when Egypt is observing a partial curfew to stem the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, concerned neighbors were alarmed to see a big crowd ignoring social distancing guidelines and called the police. That day officers showed up to the set seven times but everything they were doing was perfectly legal, Ahmed Yehia, a producer working on the serial, told CNN.
    Yehia works on a comedy, but his experience is representative of the Egyptian pre-Ramadan film industry.
    Egypt's government advises against activities involving crowds and only imposes fines on those violating the ​curfew, which was 7pm-6am initially. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who promised cash handouts to ​workers impacted by the virus, said in a televised speech last week that he did not want to completely "suspend ​work completely in all sectors."