SAG, DGA, and Unions Release the Most Essential Safety Report Yet: Repeat Testing Is Key

The guidelines call for the creation of two new coronavirus-related positions. Testing frequency could be as much as daily.
Filming for the new Batman taking place in Glasgows Necropolis graveyard.'Batman' film on set filming, Glasgow, UK - 23 Feb 2020
Filming for "The Batman" in Glasgow's Necropolis graveyard on February 23. The production was shut down due to the pandemic.
Michael McGurk/Shutterstock

It’s all about the testing. A coalition of unions, including SAG-AFTRA and the DGA, has issued a set of guidelines focused on COVID-19 protection on film and TV sets that includes daily testing for some cast and crew and strict rules about who accesses which parts of a set.

The 37-page “The Safe Way Forward” has been long awaited as a linchpin for Hollywood getting back to work. Drafted in consultation with scientific experts by representatives from SAG, the DGA, IATSE, the Teamsters, and the Basic Crafts, the guidelines are the second major industry-drafted document that will guide production in the pre-vaccine coronavirus era. The first came from a task force led by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers; with input from the guilds, they released a white paper earlier this month with a broad set of guidelines.

“The Safe Way Forward” has a particular focus on cast safety. Buy-in from SAG is viewed as crucial because actors are the most vulnerable on set. With this latest report, it’s clear that for SAG, rigid testing requirements are crucial component for production to resume.

“While the white paper offered a foundation for the appropriate state agencies to examine the resumption of production, and provides guidance employers must follow to provide a safe working environment, it expressly contemplated that specific protocols regarding mandatory testing, personal protective equipment (PPE), and department-specific procedures would be the subject of further discussions and agreement between the producers and the unions,” the unions wrote in a statement. “Today’s guidelines announced by the unions and guilds set forth key components of those detailed protocols.”

The white paper and guild guidelines together answer a strong desire by industry leaders to coalesce around one set of guidelines, one that goes beyond a simple OK by governments to resume production — like how production in California was allowed to restart Friday. In some cases, the guidelines are stricter than those required by local health departments: Los Angeles County’s rules don’t offer guidance on testing frequency, for example.

“These guidelines are written for a nationwide application and to ensure that cast and crew enjoy the same kind of safety precautions regardless of where they might work,” SAG COO and general counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland told IndieWire.

In many cases, the guild guidelines flesh out concepts introduced in the white paper or call for stricter requirements, often with incredibly precise detail.

“Regular, periodic testing” means every person working on set will be tested for active coronavirus infection before their first day and work, and will then be subject to regular testing during production, depending on the specifics of their job requirements.

Testing different groups of people at different frequencies depends on them being kept separate, necessitating the use of a zone system — a concept that serves as the foundation of all other guidelines, according to the group. The zones are titled A, B, and C.

Anyone seeking access to Zone A or B for the first time must have been tested and cleared within the prior 24 hours. That means a truly closed set: no visitors, with limits applied to producers, writers, and executives. “Important parties” without access to set should participate virtually, such as through the use of remote monitors.

  • Zone A: A bubble that encases performers working on set without social distancing or PPE, along with closely vetted crew who must work in close proximity.

All Zone A-cleared cast and crew will be tested, at minimum, three times a week. It could be as frequently as daily, such as when performers and crew are working on scenes that require particularly close contact.

“The volume of testing required will prompt a deeply critical analysis of who really needs to be in Zone A and how often,” reads the report. “Think about it this way: Who really needs to be within six feet of an unprotected performer as part of a normal workday?”

  • Zone B: Everywhere the production has a footprint that is not Zone A, where the use of PPE and social distancing practices are enforced.

“Think of it this way: From door to door, people working in Zone A travel along a cocooned path — sometimes involving multiple Zone As — laid out and controlled by people working in Zone B,” reads the guidelines.

No cast or crew member in Zone B will be tested less frequently than once per week.

  • Zone C: The outside world — homes, hotels, and other places the cast and crew go when they’re not working.

The guidelines are granular, both in their incorporation of scientific knowledge of coronavirus infection and its spread, and in its recommendations and requirements. For example, it recommends nasopharyngeal testing — which involves a long swab inserted deep into a person’s nose — rather than oropharyngeal, a less-invasive mouth swab that has been used at public testing sites in Los Angeles.

“We consider N95 masks (subject to their availability) and either goggles or a face shield to be the best available standard, while acknowledging face shields may make some jobs awkward or impossible to perform,” it reads. “Surgical masks, while not ideal, are still better than nothing for people who cannot wear N95 masks because of sizing or grooming issues.”

Building on the white paper’s call for a COVID-19 compliance officer on set, the guild guidelines call for the creation of two new positions: A Health Safety Officer (equivalent to the compliance officer) who would be in charge of testing and other tasks and the creation of a Health Safety Department, led by a health safety unit manager.

With government OK and industry-approved guidelines, the next step for producers and studios is to figure out exactly how to implement the rules to their specific productions.

“The protocols in this document are intended to be adjusted for the production realities for each set in a conversation between the producer and the unions representing cast and crew, maintaining at all times the core principles reflected in the document,” Crabtree-Ireland said.

There will, of course, be increased cost involved. It’s unclear exactly how much, but Crabtree-Ireland said studios appear to be making arrangements to handle testing en masse, while smaller production companies and independent producers should band together to ensure easy, cost-effective access to testing. The testing will be done through private labs.

“Generally speaking, we believe and our experts have confirmed their beliefs, that there’s enough testing capacity now in the major production centers in the US,” he said.

With insurance coverage among the biggest remaining questions about production in the coronavirus era, Crabtree-Ireland said such strict testing regimes protect not just individuals working on set, but also the production as a whole from the financial hit of having to stop work due to an outbreak of the disease.

Read the full guild guidelines here.

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