In June 2020, just a few months after the WHO declared Covid-19 a pandemic, Hollywood producers and unions reached a landmark agreement. To protect workers and keep productions on track, they required sets to have Covid Compliance Officers.
Last week, the Hollywood Reporter published an assessment of Tinseltown’s still-mandatory Covid Compliance Officer scheme. The verdict after more than three years? It’s a massive flop.
Considering how few Covid Compliance Officers there are in the world, is this relevant to the rest of us?
Yes it is. What hobbles Covid Compliance Officers could infect any compliance job, including those dealing with anti-corruption laws and other sensitive areas.
The first problem in Hollywood is that “Covid Compliance Officer” means different things to different people. In July this year, an industry publication called the Wrapbook described the confusion, saying the following is basically true:
There has been a rumor floating around the entertainment world that a Covid-19 Safety Compliance Officer can be anyone on your set: a PA, AD [assistant director], coordinator, and so forth. As long as they have a certificate from somewhere, they can call themselves a certified COVID-19 Safety Compliance Officer and they will be able to satisfy union, location, permit and insurance requirements.
Does professional certification really mean “a certificate from somewhere” plus self-identification as a Covid Compliance Officer? Unfortunately, yes. Again from the Wrapbook:
When resumes come flying across your desk, you’ll see different certification programs. What you want to look for are candidates who show a well rounded health and safety education.
The Hollywood Reporter talked to Jen Lyon, an actor and medic. She served as a Covid Compliance Officer on several big-budget series filmed during the height of the pandemic.
Producers violated masking regulations or testing protocols “all the time,” Lyon said, but she was powerless to intervene.
There were several situations in which stars on shows would test positive for Covid and Lyon would recommend they be quarantined. “The producers would say, ‘No, that’s a false positive.’” I’d stare at them blankly. I’d say, “No, I’ve tested them twice and they’re symptomatic. And their assistant is also sick. I can’t let them film. Can we discuss filming other scenes without this person for the next several days?” Time and again, producers insisted on the false positive narrative. If Lyon persisted, the producers appealed to the show’s medical director. . . “They would just go over my head.”
When compliance officers threatened to report violations up the chain, Lyon claims they were often fired and replaced.
“That’s why you’d see a show with four to seven Covid advisers over the course of a shooting season,” she says. “It became a joke with us. We’d ask: ‘How many weeks did you make it?’”
A stunt coordinator sick with Covid said his bosses told him to wear a mask and sunglasses, according to the Hollywood Reporter. “Also, should any questions be asked, [say] you tested negative. That way we can blame it on a faulty test.”
A crewmember on a nonfiction program told the Hollywood Reporter another worker “changed a Covid test result from negative to positive by using a computer program so the production could receive a refund on a flight it no longer needed.
The Hollywood Reporter talked about a reality TV show produced in the midwest where the problem was the Covid safety officer himself.
He was “an avid Covid denier” who urged others not to get the vaccine and regularly encouraged crew to break masking rules.
A production assistant and other crewmembers decided on self help because positive cases were being covered up. “We had to make this little secret pact because they’d just lie,” the production assistant told the Hollywood Reporter. “They were being told to lie about the situation by the upper management because they didn’t want to shut down.”
When the Covid-denying Covid Compliance Officer got Covid, the show ran for two weeks without any safety oversight at all, the Hollywood Reporter said.
Unions and producers wanted the Covid Compliance Officer scheme to work. They had different reasons, maybe, but that’s ok. And as the Hollywood Reporter makes clear, many producers and others, especially in the early days of Covid, went the extra mile (and dollar) to keep their people safe and productions on track.
But what began as a good idea — “Covid Compliance Officer” — turned into a confusing and mostly empty title, not a real solution but mere window dressing.
This is a Hollywood flop we can all learn from.