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Hollywood and hygiene: Sanitary conditions in the age of coronavirus

McManus
Alaina McManus, a first assistant camera technician for film and television, thinks on-set sanitation should not be taken lightly.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

When it comes to working on sets, Deborah Jones, a draper decorating television shows and films for the past 19 years, says there’s no debate: the bathroom facilities are the worst.

“I have worked on so many shows without a sufficient number of bathrooms, or toilets in the bathrooms, places to wash hands, get drinking water or dispose of trash,” she said.

Jones, 50, a member of the IATSE Local 44 crafts union, recalled the “abysmal” toilet facilities during one shoot in the San Fernando Valley. There wasn’t a door and it had a trough for a sink. “I was told to drive down the street and use the one at Ralphs supermarket,” she said.

On another shoot, the 100-person crew had to share a “three-hole honey-wagon.” Then there was the time working in a warehouse and the “kitchen” had no hot water and the sink was backed up and unusable for two weeks.

For the entertainment industry, the coronavirus crisis has provided an unwelcome lesson in the hidden perils of working in the kind of high-touch, densely populated environments required of movie-and-TV-making. At the same time, the highly infectious virus has shed light on one of Hollywood’s dirtiest secrets: the often questionable sanitary conditions that have long existed on sets.

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Until now, lackadaisical hygiene has largely been accepted as part of the job. While production was shut down in an effort to slow the virus’ spread, the global pandemic has stirred debate on established cleanliness practices, raising broader questions and concerns about the definition of safe work spaces in Hollywood, particularly among production crews who are often the most exposed.

Like many, longtime camera operator Lawrence Karman mulls the uncertainty while thinking about new ways to keep production crews safe and healthy.
Like many, longtime camera operator Lawrence Karman mulls the uncertainty while thinking about new ways to keep production crews safe and healthy.
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

“Nobody cleans sets,” said Lawrence Karman, 65, a camera operator (“The Amazing Spider-Man,” “Veronica Mars”). “If I’m on a stage they call wrap and everyone leaves and they lock the doors and then open it up at call.”

Karman recalled working on a shoot in downtown Los Angeles next to piles of excrement and needles. “That’s the reality of Downtown L.A., that’s what do you do,” Karman said. “You just try not to get too close to it and keep working.”

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Current circumstances have forced many to consider whether there must be a choice between budgets and well-being.

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to upend business across the country, what will it take to get Hollywood back to work?

“It’s expensive to clean every stand, sandbag and lens and that all takes time,” said the Santa Monica-based Karman. “The way we work, I get overtime after eight hours and double-time after 12. We work 12 to 14 hours a day. The last thing a producer wants is to pay more overtime.”

While Karman knows vaccines and testing for COVID-19 will offer the best chance to ensuring safe work environments, he believes sanitation on set will likely become more of a priority among studio executives and showrunners when production resumes.

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“It wasn’t a liability before,” he said. “It is now.”

Among the factors that have contributed to lax hygiene standards, according to several crew members, is location shooting.

Sound stages have well established utilities infrastructure, including multiple restrooms and sinks, hot running water, janitorial staffs that regularly clean them and, often, medical staff on site.

Alaina McManus, a first assistant camera technician for film and television, is no longer working due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Alaina McManus, a first assistant camera technician for film and television, is no longer working due to the coronavirus outbreak.
(Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times)
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Abandoned warehouses, old office buildings or the kind of off-site spaces frequently used by productions, however, don’t always have up-to-code plumbing or other basic services.

That means that crews working in the field often rely on a variety of makeshift facilities.

Jones recalled working on a site where the construction coordinator declined to rent dumpsters as a cost-saving measure so that the laborers had to fashion crates out of debris and leftover materials.

“I feel like the space requirements of the art project are prioritized over the physical requirements of the people who end up working in the building,” Jones said.

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The division of labor on set also has contributed to the problem.

“We’re the only ones allowed to clean the stage, us and the laborers,” said a longtime craft services staffer in L.A., who declined to be identified for fear of retaliation. “We’re in charge of feeding and also making sure the stage is clean. We’re in charge of trash, tidying things up. Our hands are in lot of different areas.”

“Obviously we work with gloves on, but I’ve always been of the opinion that the two should be separate. Someone should be cleaning the set all the time. Before this whole virus thing hit, I was always worried someone will get sick with all these germs flying around one confined area.”

Film crews work in close quarters operating high-touch equipment.
(Lawrence Karman)
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On one television show where this person worked three days a week, they offered to spend extra time cleaning the stage every day, only to be told by the producer, ‘I can’t afford that extra $400.’”

Then there’s the matter of personal hygiene.

Meals on set are communal, usually buffets. The craft services individual described a common scenario where no matter how clean the food tables were kept, they were still at the mercy of the “bad habits” of cast and crew; such as double dipping.

“You can’t tell an actor, ‘Hey dude, you can’t put your fingers in the food,’ it would cause a stir,” the crafts services veteran said. “You’d lose your job. And even if you went up to an above-the-line person and asked them to say something, they’d say no, even though they are responsible for the well-being of the crew.”

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Acting has always been a vocation with built-in financial insecurity. But, the coronavirus crisis has hit the profession in unprecedented ways.

The combination of long hours and the unspoken culture of machismo on set, say production staffers, frequently means powering through sickness, holding off on bathroom breaks or rushing back to set after taking one far from filming while often not washing one’s hands. The long days also mean many simply forgo showers.

“It’s not uncommon for people to smell at work,” said Alaina McManus, a first assistant camera technician.

Even before the coronavirus, McManus, 33, who works mostly in television (“Better Things”) said that she was vigilant about cleanliness. “So much of our equipment is highly specialized. I always have Purell and baby wipes around and available.”

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But the L.A. resident said she’s an anomaly. “Not all people wipe down their equipment. My practice during past cold and flu seasons has been that as soon as one person gets sick I begin wiping my camera down. It gets passed around and I want to prevent that transfer.”

Lawrence Karman on set.
Lawrence Karman on set.
(Lawrence Karman)

McManus said she’d like to see equipment wipes as well as masks and on-set medics become common practices.

“As far as sanitation goes,” she said, “I hope it becomes more of a thing and not something to be taken lightly.”

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However, for the most part, up until now it has.

While production operates under a significant set of union contracts outlining guidelines on everything from the number of breaks required to detailed safety rules, there is no similar set of standards when it comes to hygiene.

For instance, there are differing opinions on the rules for the number of toilets required per number of people on set.

“There are a lot of union contracts applying to different productions, so many of us are not aware of what our rights are as far as sanitation goes,” McManus said. “And so yes, a lot of things slide.”

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Steven Poster, a cinematographer and former president of IATSE Local 600, said that while the entertainment industry has defined rules for best practices when it comes to safety, “our industry has had little experience handling a pandemic.”

“It could only be a good thing to create cleanliness standards as a requirement,” said the L.A.-based Poster, 76. “It’s understood that we take classes in things like safety issues, like airborne odors when there is danger from substances in the air. We are taught to identify the normal safety signs for instance, indicating that there is gas. We are taught all that. So if that’s extended to methods for keeping our crews clean, that can only be a good thing.”

Some believe an entire rethinking about the filming process is needed.

“The system developed on set has been in use for 100 years,” said Dave Perkal, a Santa Monica-based director of photography. “Every piece of equipment in a motion picture production is handed from one person to another. A lens is handed off one way. Make-up and hair have to physically touch the actors. The grips touch the same equipment...Even the way we eat, it’s like a military mess hall going down the catering line in a pack.”

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Perkal is emphatic about following safety guidelines.

But he adds, “this is an invisible virus, what do you do? I’m not sure what that is. But I will not put my workers in jeopardy.”

Eventually, Hollywood will return to work and when it does, many crew would like to see new protocols in place: the wearing of gloves and masks; hand-washing stations, dedicated cleaning crews and on-set medical personnel.

Along with antibody testing, one issue being discussed around international filming is the possible establishment of “quarantine time.” Crews flying from the U.S. to another country could be subjected to a two-week quarantine period, and another two-week period after returning home.

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“A paradigm shift is in order,” Jones said. “This industry provides good, well-paying jobs with seasoned professionals occupying them. I think we could find a path to working conditions that make good personal and social hygiene both possible and required.”


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