Lights, Camera, COVID-19 Safety: How the Virus Has Changed Hollywood

By Jennifer Dornbush
Jennifer Dornbush
Jennifer Dornbush
November 10, 2021 Updated: November 10, 2021

At the onset of COVID-19, the illness caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, all Hollywood productions shut down overnight in March 2020. By mid-summer of that year, a handful of productions ramped up again, emerging with a brand-new production budget line item: COVID-19 safety.

Nick Greco was one of the first COVID-19 safety monitors to be trained and hired in July 2020. Greco has been an actor in Los Angeles since 2005, taking crew jobs in production and post-production on network and cable TV shows to pay the bills along the way.

“I became unemployed when the pandemic started and then, a few months later, this job was offered to me. I’ve been thankful for having a job during a pandemic,” says Greco. “A year-and-a-half ago this was not a job. Now it’s one of the more essential jobs in TV and film.”

Sometimes titled COVID-19 compliance officer, COVID-19 compliance manager, or COVID-19 production assistant, Greco’s daily duties in COVID-19 safety are to make sure people wear masks, wash their hands, and social distance.

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Health safety supervisor Renata Kyra does temperature check on background actor in Zone B during production of the indie feature film, “The Star City Murders” on July 1, 2021, in Los Angeles, Calif. (Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)

He orders all the PPE and sanitizing equipment, and oversees the cleaning crew throughout the day. Greco also supervises the COVID-19 testing days.

“Every crew and cast member gets tested once a week. And then there are others on set who get tested more than once a week. For the most part everyone in the office really wants to obey the rules.

“I don’t get any push back. But sometimes it does feel like being a hall monitor,” says Greco.

Greco, who is unable to divulge the name of the network production he is employed by due to a non-disclosure agreement, works with two other COVID-19 safety officers in his post-production office. They rotate shifts, since the production runs on a 24-hour schedule. “We have a boss who’s the head COVID-19 safety of the whole show and deals mainly with safety on set. On set, there are about five COVID-19 safety officers,” says Greco.

He doesn’t imagine COVID-19 safety in Hollywood going away anytime soon with the CCP variants and flu season about to start.

“Even a cold, or flu, can shut a production down if your No. 1 actor gets sick,” says Greco. “Besides, who doesn’t want a healthier set and office?”

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Filming during production of the indie feature film, “The Star City Murders” on July 1, 2021, in Los Angeles, Calif. (Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)

MacKenzie and Katianna Lee, daughters of TV writers, saw COVID-19 safety jobs as a way to gain entry level jobs in the film and TV industry, while relieving the isolation and loneliness of being at home.

Katianna Lee was studying cinema and TV arts at Cal State Northridge when the lockdowns began.

“Two months later I graduated into the pandemic,” says Katianna Lee, currently a COVID-19 health and safety manager on a Disney show.

“My older sister, MacKenzie, was in production and informed me about this COVID-19 safety job. We thought, if we learn how to do this we’ll be on set and we’ll meet everyone and have access to everyone and everything!

“What a great way to learn the industry.”

Kaitianna Lee was hired on an ABC show in October, 2020. She had never been on an official set before and learned everything by being rushed in as a COVID-19 monitor.

“I remember the first day on set, I didn’t know set lingo. And I was trying to figure out who everyone is and what they did.”

In preparation for the job, she attended 30 hours of training and learned OHSA regulations. She was also trained by her boss on site. Her first position was COVID-19 production assistant (PA).  Katianna Lee’s daily routine as a COVID-19 PA were similar to Greco’s.

Last year when Greco and the Lee sisters started working in COVID-19 safety, no one in the industry had ever worked on a film set with these kinds of safety protocols in place.

“Masks, face shields, only 25 percent capacity in a transportation van, plastic sheets on the seats of the vans, having to stay six feet apart of everyone on set. How is that even possible with costumers, grips, and actors?” says Mackinzie Lee.

“When they could, productions tried to hire people that lived together. Producers hired spouses, roommates. My sister and I worked together on a job.”

This year, protocols have loosened a little and are not as heavily enforced.  For example, last year sets were divided by zones (costuming, lights, sound, camera, actors) that were not allowed to interact with each other. This year, zones are gone. People can be closer to each other when they work.

Katianna eventually progressed to Health and Safety Manager when she took a new position on a Disney show. Here she now supervises COVID-19 PAs.

“There are so many funny, weird parts to working in covid safety,” says Katianna Lee. “I’ve held an actor’s spit bucket during a kissing scene for four hours. The actors had to rinse with mouthwash between every kiss. Not my favorite memory. But it had to be done.”

She says the hardest part of the job is making sure everyone is complying with the Covid Safety rules. She’s had to deal with every type of person on set. Some want to be overly cautious, whereas other aren’t as worried or anxious.

Katianna Lee recognizes that people come to set with very different emotions about safety and it’s her job to validate everyone’s opinion, but also let them know the rules.

“There are important people on set who don’t like the rules. Sometimes you have to tell them to put their mask on. They may respect you, but they may also hate you.”

In a time when most young people were feeling the anxiety of being locked up at home, Katianna Lee considers herself blessed to have found an on-set community in Hollywood. She went from months of isolation and loneliness to being with a community of 150-200 people on set every day for months.

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A cameraman awaits the start of the red carpet for the world premiere of Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” in Hollywood, Calif., Aug. 16, 2021. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

“I was having laughs and bonding for 14-15 hours a day. Within three weeks I knew all their names. People would say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you know my name.’”

“I have a personal relationship with everyone on set. It makes a difference to them. You start to just become family. And that felt special at a time when no one was seeing anyone. It was very fulfilling.”

Before Katianna Lee started working in COVID-19 safety she suffered from social anxiety. She felt awkward and uncomfortable in groups. After working COVID-19 safety, her social skills are improved.

“I feel like I can speak to anyone on set from production assistant to executive. Having this job was so good for me!” says Katianna Lee, who plans to pursue screenwriting, or music supervising, once she transitions out of COVID-19 safety.

Older sister, MacKenzie Lee, who is a COVID-19 safety office administrator, has worked COVID-19 safety for major network and streaming companies and on multiple music video productions. If you would have asked her this time last year if the COVID-19 safety job would still be around, she would have said: probably not. But now she thinks these jobs are going to be around for a while.

“The COVID-19 numbers are going back up. Even though people have the vaccine, they’re still getting it.”

COVID-19 safety is now 10-to-20 percent of all production budgets. To meet this expense, the Lee sisters are seeing studios and production companies cutting off the bottoms of all departments in order to cover costs. As a result, the Lees experience production staff working overtime and often being understaffed. It can be stressful.

One of  MacKenzie Lee’s most discouraging moments happened after she alerted a producer that several people on set had been exposed to the CCP virus. Protocol required that they were to be sent home and quarantined. “That producer didn’t like that and fired me. There is a certain mental abuse in the position. Not from everyone, but it happens.”

She says the biggest takeaways from working COVID-19 safety are the friends that she’s made working on productions during the pandemic.

“You really connect at a core with people, rather than surface level, when times get hard. You talk about things that really matter to you.”

“Personally, I’m thankful for the work. Before COVID-19, I was on waiting lists for jobs in film and TV. It was a very tight and shut industry,” say MacKenzie Lee who gets regular text requests from others across productions and studios asking where they can hire COVID-19 safety workers.

MacKenzie would eventually like to work as a producer. “Working COVID-19 safety, I really got to know people on a personal level. I’ve experienced the bottom of the bottom, and this will definitely help me be more connected to my cast and crew. I want them happy!”