How do you come up with a union-compliant COVID-19 safety protocol in the middle of a pandemic?
Back in January of this year, I had begun pre-production for my short film Elegy, a film about a teenager who is reunited with her biological parent 16 years after being kidnapped at birth while her kidnapper remains at large, which was to begin production in April.
This, of course, did not happen, and I was forced to postpone the project indefinitely.
SAG and other unions were racing to find a perfect protocol to ensure the safety of productions when they would be allowed to resume. I, being low on the totem pole of importance, didn’t think I would get the opportunity to shoot my film anytime soon because of the extensive list of things required for COVID safety onset, and the amount of money that would be required. SAG even told me at one point, “You know, you should just wait until this all blows over to shoot your project.”
With New York City being the safest it's ever been since the pandemic first hit, and the looming and inevitable second wave that is coming, I knew that if I didn’t go for it now, this film would be in limbo for a very, very long time. And once New York City, SAG, and the other unions gave the green light for productions to resume, it was now or never for this film.
In this piece, I will break down the protocols, procedures, and costs it took me to make this film safely during the pandemic. Everything I list here is 100% SAG-AFTRA approved (because I had to relay them this plan before they approved my project). But these procedures are subject to change because of the nature of this pandemic. Think of this list as a sure-fire jumping off point and a way to properly prepare so you’re not scrambling to get these things done before your shoot date.
Also note that if your shoot is longer than three days, you need to have everyone get tested again, so please keep this in mind as you plan. Coordinate with your rep to make sure your plan is compliant. If you are going non-union, this piece is a very good system to make sure you keep your cast/crew safe.
I was very lucky no one contracted COVID on set, but nothing is certain, so proceed with extreme caution.
24-Hour Turnaround for COVID-19 Testing
By far the most difficult thing about getting this film approved for me was finding a lab that would offer a 24-hour turnaround COVID-19 test. SAG has a list of approved tests, and it can only be one of these four:
- Nasopharyngeal (NP) Testing (SAG Preferred)
- Anterior Nasal Testing (Nasal Swirl)
- Oropharyngeal Testing (Throat Swab Test)
- Saliva Testing
As of August, blood testing, rapid finger-prick testing, or mid nasal PCR testing were not acceptable test methods.
A lot of labs in the city were backlogged with tests because they were getting many from so many sources around the state, so they were offering a five-day turnaround minimum.
There are services, specifically for film, that offer testing for sets, but that is incredibly costly and unfeasible for a short film. I called every major hospital in the immediate area and discovered that NYU Langone does not send out their tests to a lab and offers results in 24-48 hours maximum. And the best part—the max cost was $126 a person. This was for the mandatory NYU telemedicine visit which, if people on your cast/crew don’t have insurance, will cost you that price.
With this, I was able to coordinate having everyone schedule their test for the day before the shoot, get every result back under 24 hours, and move forward without any hindrance.
For upstate New York, Nuvance Health System offers the same thing, so if you’re shooting north of the city, this is the place for you. For everyone in other states—find a hospital system that tests their samples in-house and ask them general turnaround time.
Forty-eight hours is the absolute maximum for SAG-AFTRA, so if there are facilities that can’t guarantee that turnaround, you will have to find another place. This requires some leg work, but it’ll save you a lot of money and aggravation.
PPE, Social Distancing, and a COVID Compliance Officer
Personal protective equipment (PPE) is now a lot easier to get, thankfully, but you can run into bad batches of products that don’t work or find price-gouged items on Amazon or other sites.
I ordered my PPE from Wrist Band, and I had a medical professional verify if the products were any good. (I have no affiliation or sponsorship with this site or brands featured on the site.) But feel free to look around and find the best deal possible. Don’t buy this last minute. You will need surgical three-layer masks, face shields, and small individual hand sanitizers. You can have hand sanitizer stations throughout the set, but I found it easier and more sanitary to have everyone have their own. Your hand sanitizer should be 70% alcohol-based.
SAG will ask you to give a layout of the location(s) and your plan for making sure there is proper ventilation throughout.
If you are exclusively outside, this is not going to be an issue for you. My approved plan from SAG had all windows open in the house at all times to allow air to move freely throughout. The only windows allowed to be closed were the windows we were shooting near to control for sound. They will require a visual layout (as pictured below) showing all windows and doors.
For your COVID Compliance Officer (CCO), they need to be a medically trained individual and have training in COVID preventative measures.
When I shot my film, there was not an abundance of COVID compliance officers around to hire. SAG allowed me to hire a medically trained person and they took all of the CDC’s COVID 19 training programs, which can be found online. This is the bare minimum required for a SAG-approved CCO. So hiring a PA to yell at people to social distance is not going to cut it. Even if your set is non-union, you should be 100% hiring a certified CCO. You should not be putting your cast and crew in potential jeopardy because you wanted to save a couple of hundred dollars. Even though things have been getting under control, we are still in a pandemic.
Your CCO does more than force people to social distance. They are fully in charge of set safety protocols. Call times are staggered by different divisions as to not have a rush of people come in at the same time. The CCO will be the first along with the first division, which is the department heads.
The CCO will take everyone’s temperature and distribute PPE. Face masks are the one item that should be given new every day. Once everyone is in, departments will go in one by one and prep the set. So first the set decorators, then grip and electric, then finally camera and sound.
When cameras are rolling with actors on-set, camera, sound, and the director are the only ones allowed in the area. Your CCO will enforce this and ensure everyone is social distancing. At lunch, your CCO will call on each division to get their lunch until everyone gets their meals. Everyone goes outside, remaining six feet apart at all times, and eats their meals. Talent can remain inside because they are the only people on the set without their masks.
When your CCO sees anything that is in direct opposition to COVID preventative measures, they will immediately interrupt the situation, whether it is crew members surrounding crafty without masks to making your cast uncomfortable. Your CCO will put safety first.
"You should include your [COVID Compliance Officer] in all pre-production meetings."
You should include your CCO in all pre-production meetings, including the tech scout. They need to be in the loop as much as any other department head.
One potential solution created for talent was to have one actor wear a mask while the other had theirs off. We’d swap as needed for the scene. For master shots, we’d shoot it three times and splice it together in post (much like the same tactics used for making it appear that the same person is talking to themselves face to face). But talent ultimately decided because of the extensive protocols in place and all testing negative, they felt comfortable with whatever shot list we came up with.
Of course, because of this, I had the talent tested again so we could contact trace in the event of a positive test. You can do this as well, but talent made this decision. Come up with a plan to make sure your talent feels safe.
SAG also requires a sanitation plan, which usually means hiring a cleaning company to come in and disinfect the place.
I shopped around to find a service that could come in and clean after we wrapped (for three days). This was definitely one of the pricier items on the COVID prevention checklist, but essential. I also had disinfecting wipes in all bathrooms, crafty, and with departments who touched items that were touched by more than one person. This was to ensure every surface was as clean as possible at all times.
And as mentioned, everyone had their own bottle of hand sanitizer.
If you are really cash-strapped, work with SAG and see what options you can come up with that will keep your cast/crew safe and won’t deplete your account.
"SAG will not allow you to make talent/crew sign COVID waivers absolving blame if anyone on set gets sick."
SAG or any union will not allow you to make talent/crew sign COVID waivers absolving you of blame if anyone on set gets sick.
Even if you are non-union, you should not be doing this to your cast/crew. You are asking them to come and shoot a project in a pandemic. Make sure you have a company (like an LLC) set up to make a contract between talent and crew. But, realistically, you should be discussing a plan with your CCO in the event someone on your shoot gets COVID-19 and what the next steps should be.
Any medical costs are covered by production, and SAG requires you to have worker’s compensation insurance in the event they are unable to work. Make sure you have this contingency plan ready, because anything is possible.
Speaking of insurance, it’s worth noting that your insurance policy will not be covering your set in the event you have to shut down due to COVID-19.
This means that you will be out a sizable portion of your money if you have to shut down. Check with your insurance broker and work out a plan.
My insurance broker recommended I wait until the last possible moment to bind the policy, which is difficult since different parties need their certificate of insurance (COI) as soon as possible. I was able to hold off until two days before the equipment checkout. If you do bind your insurance and then discover that one of your cast or essential crew gets COVID-19, you have the ability to change the dates of your shoot and still be covered, but only for a very small window of time.
I was afforded this option, but every policy/broker is different, so please ask your broker for all available options.
Care About Your Cast/Crew
From the get-go, I made sure everyone felt as comfortable as possible for the entire process. I told everyone if something made them feel uncomfortable to tell me or the CCO, and we would rectify the situation immediately.
I wanted everyone to bring their A-game, and a sure way that doesn’t happen is making them feel uneasy for their time on set. This is especially true for talent, who are the most vulnerable on set to contract COVID.
You’re also bringing people out of their homes during a pandemic. You should be paying everyone. Unless they are your close friends who care about helping you with your project and want to do it for free, every freelancer you hire should be getting some sort of compensation. I mean, realistically, this should be the case all of the time, but it's especially true now because of the risk to people's health.
Don’t take advantage of everyone being out of work to give them horrendous rates to benefit yourself. I didn’t have a wealth of riches to shower everyone with, but I definitely gave fair compensation to everyone. There’s no excuse why you can’t either.
It seems like short films and smaller projects are being left by the wayside, as they aren’t deemed important enough to shoot. All the information out there is exclusively about feature films with bigger budgets.
Having ripped my hair out and conversing with SAG for many weeks, I am happy to share with you all something of an actual battle plan for running a safe shoot for short films. Remember: the safety of your cast and crew is the most important thing right now.
Low-budget filmmakers are creative and resourceful; you can come up with creative ways to creatively express your vision without compromising on everyone’s safety. But make sure you are actually able to shoot your project. If you find that you aren’t able to check off one of these steps, you should wait. I know you don’t want to hear that, especially since you just read an entire article about how I didn’t want to wait, but I made sure I had everything on this list checked off. If I couldn’t, I would have no choice but to postpone indefinitely. It’s not worth the danger to everyone’s health and the liability you would be putting on yourself.
Be safe and take care of your cast and crew. “Good Vibes Only.”