Despite a deadly virus continuing to ravage the U.S., with an all-time spike in cases currently overwhelming hospitals in cities across the U.S and L.A.'s numbers surging past 12,000 dead and 900,000 infected post-Christmas, Hollywood is chugging along filming movies and television shows.
There has been major discussion between different factions in Tinseltown, even though various sets, including those for Lucifer, Mr. Mayor and Young Sheldon, have reported cases into the double digits, as reported by Variety, causing halts in production. The Screen Actors Guild, Producers Guild of America and the Joint Policy Committee recently released a statement recommending the full, temporary shut down of productions in Southern California, with SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris saying, "This is not a safe environment for in-person production right now."
As production has continued during a pandemic still spreading, a new role has emerged on sets in and near Hollywood and anywhere else films and TV shows are being shot: the COVID-compliance officer (CCO).
Demerie Danielson is one of these officers, working on sets including Netflix's Messiah, Amazon's The Underground Railroad, and HBO Max's Cry Macho. The Albuquerque resident started her career in August, receiving training tailored for working on sets and a certification through a company called VIP StarNetwork, a health services and technology company that has partnered with major studios to provide medical services on set, including COVID support. VIP StarNetwork is hired by both union and non-union production companies to provide a CCO for their sets. The CCO position itself is non-union, and pay varies wildly. A spokesperson for VIP StarNetwork said it's between $60 and $200 an hour, depending on production budgets and unions advocating for hiring of their members.
"You might ask, 'Why would you need a COVID-compliance officer when they have a set medic?'" Danielson, a registered nurse with a background in working with SARS patients, told VICE. "But I think that's what makes a COVID-compliance officer unique and so valuable. We have [a] certain set of skills."
VICE spoke to Danielson to get insight into this new position, what a typical work day looks like, and how she and others handle intimate scenes that seem rife with COVID danger.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
VICE: Can you explain your role on set? What your day to day looks like?
Demerie Danielson: You can start as early as four in the morning. We start with temperature checking every single cast and crew member before they enter the building. We also have an app that asks questions, some of which include: have you traveled outside of your home state; have you been in contact with anyone who has been confirmed positive; have you been isolating with any new individuals. Once you get through those questions, the app will send you a QR code that allows you to enter into the building. If you don't answer those set of questions or if the app reads that someone is potentially a risk, you don't get to enter the building until your COVID-compliance officer goes through those questions with you and determines if you're safe to enter or not.
From there we do testing. Some people are tested five days a week, some every day of the week down to just one or two days a week. We're making sure that everyone's staying in their zones. There's a green, red, and yellow zone. Green zones are areas where people are able to walk more freely although we always have to have PPE on, like face masks and goggles. Red zones are where people have to wear all PPE: face mask, goggles, they have a bonnet or a smock on and all time, gloves, booties on their shoes. We make sure that everyone is compliant with that.
We also will do sanitizing between scenes, and make sure that people are not eating in a red or yellow zone, and that they're maintaining social distance while they are eating or their mask is off. We're limiting the amount of people that are around the cast members when they are without any PPE at all. We maintain the amount of people in a certain square footage. We have filters that are cleaning the air constantly, and it can only clean it efficiently if we maintain an occupancy of two people per 500-square ft.
It's a lot of walking around and making sure people are staying on top of what they're supposed to, and making sure no one slips through the cracks. I've seen some people who are supposed to test five days a week and they missed and they think there's 800 people, no one's gonna notice. We notice and they have to go home and be re-onboarded, which means they have to have two negative tests before they can come back on set.
I'm assuming you're adhering to all those rules as well.
Because this is such a new job, are you still learning what's actually feasible for one person to handle on a set?
Right. We have a whole health and safety team. So you have a health and safety supervisor, a health and safety manager, and a COVID-compliance officer that work all together to manage the set in it as a whole. There's also union and non-union set medics, zone monitors that don't necessarily need to be licensed medical professionals. I would be lying if I said I did it all alone.
So how long are your days? And how many days in a row are you working sometimes?
Sometimes, Monday through Sunday. At the height of filming it can be from 4am to 10pm. For some nights scenes we'll come in from 10pm to 4am. It's a long day. What's also different now is before, you could go take a break, go to the coffee pot and pour yourself some coffee, or go grab lunch. We can't have coffee pots or water fountains. Those are what could be considered high-touch surface areas. It can make for a very long day, but the health safety manager is very good at making sure that we could take a break, even if it's just 10 minutes to gather your head. It is a challenge. You're limited what you can do during those breaks.
It seems very intense. Even when other people are taking breaks you still have to monitor so when do you get to have a moment to yourself?
It is a lot. I'll be honest. I've never done anything in the film industry before. I feel like I'm very good at what I do in the hospital. I felt like my acquired skills were a very good fit for this. I still do, but it's a lot of work. Working in the hospital is a lot and this is a lot in a different way. Even after you go home, you prepare the testing kits for the next day, or on the weekend you prepare it for the next week. Sometimes you have producers that are flying in from another state that are coming in and you have to make sure that they're tested prior to them boarding a plane, prior to them even making flight arrangements. They have to have negative tests. There's a whole protocol for everything.
Are there any strange methods you use to keep the set safe?
The static electricity guns that we use to sanitize between costume changes or scenes. They're huge and they look like Star Wars guns. You know those big guys that are in the white in Star Wars, and they have those big suits on? They're kind of like army guys.
Yes! They look like something they would carry. They're very lightweight, but they're big. I've never seen anything like that before.
They use static electricity to disinfect?
When you shoot it, is there anything visually that changes? Does it emit anything?
This specific one that we use, it lets out something like dust. Actually no, it looks like a spray bottle when it's not on a stream. It's kind of like a [makes poof sound]. It's something like that. It's kind of like a liquid but it doesn't leave anything wet behind. That's the solution.
Like a mist.
Yes! A very, very, very fine mist. I was so excited to play with that gun. I mean literally in 30 second, it can sanitize a good amount of space. We can get a whole entire house in less than five minutes and it will be completely sanitized.
Have you dealt with kissing scenes or any scene where there's physical intimacy? Sex scenes, etc.?
I have been on scenes that require actors to be very close. Like sharing the bed, or where they're kissing. We do have intimacy specialists that will come in and they help, but the CCO will still ultimately be in control of [making sure COVID protocols are followed].
Let's say they do a kissing scene and they want to do a retake. We can't do the retakes all day. We have to do it, take a break, we sanitize in between, we come back to the scene. If it's not the take they want, we come back to it the following day just to minimize the time that these people are close to each other and minimize the spread as much as possible. It's not just the two cast members. They're there without their masks but they're also in a room with other individuals that don't have their masks on, and camera people and sound people. There have been changes to it, but we're still able to make it happen. It just takes a little longer.
In reality TV where it's supposedly unscripted, these things happen organically. Somebody hooks up with someone else in a hot tub. That sort of thing. Is that not possible to do anymore? Is that going to be forbidden, for lack of a better word, on those sets?
In my experience, that has a lot to do with what the cast themselves are comfortable with doing. It's the producer, director and cast member; all of them have a say in what they're comfortable with. If you have a situation where you have your significant other doing a few things, that might be different than it organically happening with Person A and B who have never seen each other before.
The last production that I was on, one of the cast members was totally opposed to doing any kind of [kissing or intimacy scene]. She would do it once, and wouldn't do it again. If they didn't like the take, she wasn't going to redo it. She didn't want to do any kissing scene at all. It depends on what someone is comfortable with. I will say that in that instance, they did ask if it was safe. And since we had everyone tested, and we're all in a testing bubble, we did deem it safe for them to try the kissing scene.
Does it feel worth it to keep productions moving when all this is required?It sounds like a lot, but when it's in play it's not as bad as it sounds. You get into a flow. It just sounds like a lot because there's so many rules and guidelines and protocols.
There's some back and forth about postponing production within Hollywood. The Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild have pushed for productions to be put on hold, while others are saying there's too much money to lose, noting that the protocols are working. Still, there's always slip-ups. It's impossible to control everything. So the debate has been, should things be put on pause or should they continue. From the COVID-complaince and medical standpoint, what are your thoughts on that?
I have mixed feelings. I can see both sides of it. The industry is a big moneymaker for New Mexico and no one wants to put anyone's health or life at risk for money ever. No matter how much revenue is made from the industry, of course a person's life is always more important than money. If we can do what we're supposed to, as far as keeping individuals safe, if we can build the trust and respect with these with these productions that we're working with, and we're maintaining our end of the deal, I think it's a safe way to continue [filming]. The positivity rate will speak for itself. They've been very low.
I think it's a good, healthy way to make sure that we stay safe, while keeping some sort of normality going. I think we've taken so much away from every aspect of life. If we can keep this going safely, I'm all for it.