When an out-of-work Hollywood production crew member was offered the opportunity to be a COVID-19 safety liaison on a Warner Bros. TV show in the fall, they jumped at the chance to be gainfully employed during the pandemic. But they were unprepared for what awaited, and months into the job, they regret taking it.
“It just feels like there's no room for anything else in my life but this job, handling the crew, trying to get them through it, and get us through to the finish line,” said the employee, who spoke to BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution at the studio and in the industry.
Lack of resources and adequate training, conflicting messages from executives, and no industry standards have pushed some of the people in charge of keeping Hollywood’s sets safe during a raging pandemic to the breaking point. Others have had to make up the rules as they go just to keep the train from going off the track.
“This pandemic is only a year old, so as we learn more, we have to change what we’re doing,” the Warner Bros. employee said. “The ripple effects are so chaotic, and we're the ones who take the brunt of it. The executives at Warner Bros. sit in their at-home offices and issue these mandates, but we have to deal with the crew's fears and complaints.”
A COVID compliance assistant who works on an Amazon Studios show and also asked to remain anonymous said they received no training or additional information.
“I have no formal training. I have no medical training. I don't know anything more or less about coronavirus than the next person,” the employee said.
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The lack of preparation for these COVID compliance officers, employees say, has been exacerbated by noncompliance among peers, especially when trying to get superiors to follow the rules on sets where power dynamics have long been at play.
“Everybody who’s working on the production wants to get back to work and wants to be there, but there's a lot of hoops to jump through and a lot of red tape, and sometimes people are adhering to those things and at other points they’re just totally ignored,” the Amazon Studios employee said. “Just because you make more money than me doesn’t mean you’re less susceptible to this virus. The coronavirus doesn’t take into account money or status or career.”
The Amazon Studios employee said crew members get their temperatures taken twice at different points before entering the designated filming area. Crew members also submit a daily Google form that asks questions related to possible COVID-19 exposure and symptoms. But it all seems inadequate.
“I sit at a desk for 12 hours a day and my only job is to check people in the morning and make sure people don't stand too close to one another, and I just wonder if enough is being done to make sure only essential people are on set or in the studio,” the employee said.
In a statement, Amazon Studios said “the health and safety of our cast and crew are our highest priority.”
“We have strict protocols on all of our sets and locations, and we are constantly monitoring and ensuring that all necessary guidelines and procedures are closely followed,” the company added.
A spokesperson for Warner Bros. declined to comment.
The Warner Bros. employee, who spends their days managing safety on set and their nights and weekends answering emails and phone calls from concerned crew members, said they do work with a couple of production assistants specifically dedicated to handling COVID safety, as well as a registered nurse. But despite taking several online training courses, they’re not a medical professional and feel ill-equipped to handle every possible scenario.
“There are so many situations that are unprecedented. They can train you to a certain point, but at the same time, you just have to be really good on your toes,” the employee said. “I would get really frustrated at first about the lack of communication from higher-ups until I realized they just want me to solve all of the problems and questions. They just want me to govern the show. Once I understood that, I stopped looking for someone else to tell me what to do.”
Like many other TV crew members working in Los Angeles during the height of the pandemic, the Warner Bros. employee thinks productions started up again too early, noting that there have been isolated cases of crew members testing positive for COVID-19.
“As much as you want to feel safe at work and you want to feel like there's no risk, that's not possible,” the employee said.
“Testing is important and extracting people who test positive is important, but people rely too heavily on testing. They’re lulled into a false sense of security by thinking that everyone on set is tested so they are safe, when the testing is only a snapshot. It's just a moment in time,” the Warner Bros. employee added. “I can test negative in the morning and be positive in the afternoon. This is not a worry-free environment. You should be worried.”
It may be unrealistic to expect a standard for COVID safety across television and film sets given how different each production is, but the Amazon Studios employee said there should at least be clear guidelines on each show. When it comes to the Amazon production, the assistant said, “The way I’ve been told to handle things changes depending on who I’m speaking to.”
“No one is on the same page,” the employee said. “There’s not a lot of clear communication going on. I don't know if my superiors have even properly communicated with each other.”
According to the Amazon Studios employee, main cast members also “operate under a different set of rules” because they’re tested more often. And the power dynamics with more senior colleagues don’t help.
“Some people act frustrated when I try to just do my job — it’s very much an ego thing in that regard,” the employee said. “I try to calmly reiterate and explain what I’ve been tasked to do, which also isn’t much. I’m just trying to operate on the minimal instruction I’ve been given.”
Another production assistant in charge of COVID safety on a documentary about Britney Spears over the summer also said they didn’t receive any training on how to keep everyone safe, and that it was uncomfortable to enforce what guidelines there were when everyone was their superior.
They recalled someone on set who kept refusing to wear a mask, even coming over at one point to “go on and on saying, ‘More people die from the flu [than COVID-19] every year.’”
“And I can’t say anything back because I’m a PA,” the assistant said. “I just responded, ‘Interesting, I didn't know that.’ He would only wear his mask for maybe 10-minute increments, and we’d have to keep reminding him.”
Now, with Los Angeles County continuing to be a coronavirus hot spot — the average number of new COVID cases per day was recently about 7,000 — the assistant said they’re avoiding in-person work “because of how terrifying LA is right now.”
But not all share their sentiment. A COVID safety officer who recently worked on a CBS sitcom said they had a mostly positive experience working on set and are prepared to eventually return.
“Universally, this is something every industry is going to have to learn,” the employee said. “We’re trying to make this work as much as possible, and from what I saw, people were more angry and disillusioned at hearing that the production was in danger of getting shut down because other people weren’t being safe than they were angry about having to abide by the rules we created.”
The assistant, who also declined to be named, said there was a learning curve for crew members and talent to get used to the show’s strict set of rules, but staffers “changed their mindsets and embraced the new normal” because they wanted to keep their jobs.
“We didn’t want to come from a place of, ‘You have to do this,’ but we explained the reasoning behind it,” the employee said. “Putting a cotton swab up your nose for 10 seconds every day is a heck of a lot better than potentially contracting a deadly virus and spreading it to your friends and family.” ●