Have You Satisfied Your Covid Compliance Officer?
They’re at the Oscars, on film sets, at festivals and office buildings. Meet the new gatekeepers to gathering responsibly.,
[Follow our live coverage of the 2021 Oscars.]
Dr. Linda Dahl was pacing the alleyway off a sound stage at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Long Island City. It was 7 a.m. on a gray April morning, and Dr. Dahl, an ear, nose and throat surgeon turned Covid compliance officer, was overseeing testing for the nearly 300-person cast and crew of a TV production. Already it had been a long day.
At 5 a.m., someone’s PCR test from the day before had come back positive, which meant that Dr. Dahl spent the next two hours contact tracing and isolating crew members who had been in contact with the infected person. “You’re getting a little excitement today,” she said.
At Sunday’s Academy Awards, the team is hoping for low excitement. Dr. Erin Bromage, the lead Covid compliance consultant for the Oscars, has overseen on-set compliance for more than 35 productions since last June, beginning with Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”
But awards shows are different, said Dr. Bromage, who is also a professor of immunology and infectious diseases at UMass Dartmouth. “With TV and film, you’ve got time to get it right,” he said. “With the Academy Awards, it’s live. There’s no learning on the go, and there is no second time around.”
The show will take place at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and will be produced by Steven Soderbergh, Stacey Sher and Jesse Collins. Mr. Soderbergh, the director of the 2011 movie “Contagion,” and Ms. Sher, one of its producers, consulted many of the same epidemiologists they did then to help safeguard the awards ceremony.
Mr. Soderbergh has said that the awards will celebrate the way the entertainment industry has paved the way for others to open up again — though in March he called the logistics “mind-numbing” and described the show’s plans as “etched in Jell-O.”
“This is the biggest global production that’s out there,” Dr. Bromage said, noting that people will be traveling from all over the world. (Quarantine will be shorter if you traveled in a “low-risk manner,” such as in first or business class, and if you are vaccinated.) Guests and presenters will be sent at-home testing kits, and most people will receive day-of PCRs for a test total of around 15,000. Ms. Sher said she hopes the show will provide “a glimpse of what is going to be possible when most people are vaccinated and rapid testing is the norm.”
‘A Hammer and a Scalpel’
Compliance practices at the Oscars will be closely watched as organizers prepare for the gradual resumption of major events such as, say, the next Tonys (to be coordinated with Broadway’s reopening).
Dr. Dahl remembers such extravaganzas well; a theater fan, her ENT practice was a hub for Broadway stars such as Neil Patrick Harris and Darren Criss. With the majority of her patients performers, she burned through her savings to cover the rent on her Midtown office and finally closed her practice in June of 2020.
She said she applied to volunteer at three New York hospitals during the city’s pandemic peak but did not hear back. Instead, she sold a proposal for a book on breastfeeding, “Suck It,” and painted her bedroom aqua fresco. In August, the wife of a former patient, a TV line manager, called looking for something called a Covid compliance officer.
“Nobody had heard of that name before,” Dr. Dahl said. “They were just coming up with what that meant.” When the line producer described what was needed for the role, Dr. Dahl told her: “It sounds like someone who doesn’t exist. It’s like hiring a unicorn. You need someone who is an epidemiologist, but who also knows production and who can oversee health and safety and the logistics that entails.”
Part cop, part coach, C.C.O.s have become essential overseers in America’s tentative return to prepandemic life. “We’re at a tipping point,” said Dr. Blythe Adamson, an infectious disease epidemiologist and economist. “People are going out more, they have pandemic fatigue. They’re vaccinated, but people are still getting Covid with these new strains. It makes the compliance officer role extremely important.”
“It’s the difference between a hammer and a scalpel,” said Dr. Adamson, who has been consulting with companies and organizations to help create reopening protocols for live events. “Covid compliance last April was just ‘stay home.’ Now, a year later, we’ve figured out a way to do more things but there are more nuances to how to do them safely. It’s much harder to be the C.C.O. with the scalpel. Things can be really risky if we don’t have all the right layers added up.”
“Everyone I’m talking to is saying, ‘The wave is coming, as soon as we can work out these kinks we’re back,’” said Grace Richardson, an on-set compliance coordinator who is also on the Covid team for NY Pops Up, a performance festival. “Film and TV has paved the way for all of this to happen, L.A. tried it first over the summer, then New York in the fall, I think their production protocols will set the blueprint for every other event.”
Ms. Richardson worked as a production manager for luxury fashion events such as Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty fashion show and Chanel’s J12 Yacht Club event. After being laid off by her agency in July a production assistant friend in her book club told her about her new C.C.O. role. “I thought, ‘If I can check in people for the Met Gala, I can check in people for Covid,’” Ms. Richardson said. It is — and isn’t — that simple.
Bursting the ‘Spit Bubbles’
Covid compliance officers come to the job with a range of skill sets. For instance: Stephanie Wolf, a production assistant turned C.C.O., was on the cleaning team for the 2020 Emmy Awards, where she wiped down doorknobs and railings every hour with Spic and Span antibacterial wipes. Then there’s Dr. Dahl reading PCR test results at 4 a.m.
The webinars offered range from two to 40 hours. In a two-hour Health Education Services course, one of the leading C.C.O. certifications, students learn how to build a pandemic “kit” (including a tape measure for social distancing) and that the virus enters the body through the eyes, mouth and nose. C.C.O.s tend to come from the entertainment industry and event production rather than the medical field, which can sow doubt and confusion when C.D.C. and OSHA guidelines changes or seems to contradict each other.
Mark Liu, a longtime production coordinator turned C.C.O. who oversaw all testing for the 2020 Emmys, took a basic health training course online. “That doesn’t tell you how to execute and implement,” he said. “Every production is its own beast. There’s no blue book of ‘here’s what you should do.’”
Mr. Liu has since shifted out of on-set production completely, preferring to spend his days doing accounting from his bungalow in the San Gabriel Valley with his tabby cat, Kit. “Covid broke my brain a bit,” he said. “Other people can feel free to carry that torch.”
In March, Dr. Adamson joined the White House Task Force, working 20 hour days as a math modeler on the ventilator shortage after flying her 9- and 11-year-old daughters out to stay with her parents on their oyster farm in the Pacific Northwest. “Someone gets tasked with this job and they read all the C.D.C. guidance and translate it to their setting and come up with a protocol, but they’re not coming from a medical background,” she said. Since the summer, she has served on a number of advisory boards to help industries and organizations return to operating, including Broadway and the N.B.A. (She helped conceive the bubble model.)
Dr. Adamson met some resistance when she recommended allocating a $30,000 budget to upgrade the filtration and HVAC ventilation at a Broadway theater rather than hiring staff to provide temperature checks at the door and constant cleaning of surfaces. “Choice A gives the appearance of doing the right things,” she said, referring to the door checkers and wipe-downs. “Choice B is actually going to mitigate risk.”
Dr. Dahl said she is regularly frustrated with the “Covid theater” of certain studio- or union-mandated protocols, including rapid tests, temperature screenings, and plastic dividers in the makeup and catering department, which she describes as potential “spit bubbles.” She insists the most important aspects of keeping a production safe are consistent PCR testing and ventilation.
She also finds the hypocrisy of crew compliance frustrating. Dr. Dahl will watch crew members follow her rules all day, then jump in a car together maskless after work. But this frustration runs the other direction as well: Chad Connell, an actor filming a romantic comedy outside Toronto, noted the absurdity of being chastised by one compliance officer for chatting with his co-star maskless after they completed a kissing scene.
Dr. Dahl’s first compliance job was on a $100 million production last August, the third show to begin filming in New York State. She had never been on a film set before. “It was terrifying. Otherworldly,” she said, noting that the sci-fi sets also contributed to the feeling of disorientation. “It was a completely different language.” She learned the words “grip” and “gaffer,” and that a “strike” was about breaking down a set not a picket line.
“I was this random woman named Linda, showing up with a bullhorn,” said Dr. Dahl, who had been accustomed to wearing five-inch Stuart Weitzman heels and Diane von Furstenberg cocktail dresses to her office and was now in Merrell waterproof boots and Joie cargo pants.
“I had complete control. I could shut the show down, but also it was up to me to lead them through this safely,” she said. “It’s a huge responsibility and I’m a stranger to them who has never worked in this world.” The crew didn’t know what to call her. She told them to call her “Linda,” but they insisted on calling her “Dr. Linda.”
“I think they needed to call me ‘doctor’ to have faith in me, for me to command some authority,” she said.
Dogs, Scanners, Action
The budget for Covid compliance on sets is high: 25 to 30 percent of the total, according to Dr. Dahl and others. Dr. Dahl said she now makes in a week what she used to make in a day in private practice. She oversees a team of 18, mostly coming from the theater world, but has worked with C.C.O.s with backgrounds as varied as the U.S. Army and insurance.
Of course, what constitutes Covid compliance can change on a weekly, even daily, basis with C.D.C. guidelines ever evolving. “It’s a roller coaster,” said Alexandra Williams, the director of event services for the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. “Things are happening so fast right now.”
Ms. Williams noted the boom of compliance and Covid safety related companies marketing everything from testing to sanitation to industrial thermometers. “Everyone is trying to sell you something that will keep your work space safe, it’s hard to know what to do. How do we know in three months this will be obsolete?” She has been pitched Covid sniffing dogs and six-figure thermal scanners. “There are already so many logistical pawns in producing events and now that is double.” As she spoke to a reporter, she was staring at a registration grid for The Greek Theater’s first large event, an E-gaming conference “It’s not for the faint of heart.”
Connor Fitzpatrick, executive director of CrowdRx, which provides safety and medical support for large gatherings, said, “We always offer a caveat: ‘Our guidance today is not the same as our guidance tomorrow.’” His company has been getting calls daily for help planning Covid-safe events this summer, from large-scale music festivals such as the upcoming Global Citizen Vaxx Live Concert to 10-person family reunions, Mr. Fitzpatrick admits the constantly changing guidelines from health organizations provides a challenge.
CrowdRx heavily relied on thermal scanning before doubts were raised about temperatures being a reliable indicator of infection. “I like to describe it as the Swiss cheese model: As long as the holes don’t line up, each piece of protocol and protection is stopping a percentage of opportunity for infection,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said. (He used to be most concerned about rattlesnake bites and hyperthermia at festivals such as Burning Man.)
Pope Jackson is the production manager at the Shed, the multidisciplinary arts venue at Hudson Yards, and has become the Covid commander for the institution after receiving two compliance certifications. He says meeting the separate list of protocols set by each union is the most logistically challenging part of the job. For example, the American Federation of Musicians union requires brown paper bags to be provided for vocalists and wind instrumentalists to stash their masks while performing. “You need to have that or the whole show could be thrown off,” said Mr. Jackson, who worked on the New York Philharmonic’s first show in 400 days in the Shed’s McCourt Theater in mid-April.
But with everyone considering themselves Covid experts and guidelines ever-shifting compliance fatigue can be high. Dr. Dahl said she is often yelled at on set. “I’ve had random crew scream at me, everything from ‘That’s not the science’ to both ‘You’re not strict enough’ and ‘You’re too strict.’”
She and other C.C.O.s say they’re often referred to as the “Covid Cop,” both affectionately and not. An extra on a Disney show said the crew referred to that C.C.O. as the “pool noodle Nazi” for the foam pool accessory repurposed to prod extras into six feet of social distance.
“There’s a nice way to do it,” said Bronson van Wyck, the event planner, of compliance policing. He says instead of reminding someone to put on a mask he would offer someone a fresh one from a silver bowl. “The same way I would say, ‘We’re about to serve dinner,’ instead of ‘You should have gone into the dining room 30 minutes ago, the food is cold.’”
For many in the hospitality business, assuming the role of party cop has been counterintuitive. For others, however, it has prepared them well for Covid management. Mariellynn Maurer has run the College of William & Mary’s Events and Conferences Department for almost two decades but was repositioned last summer to oversee Richmond Hall, the dormitory that acted as the isolation area for students who had tested positive. The school newspaper, The Flat Hat, dubbed her the “Quarantine Queen.”
“We’re hosting ‘guests,’ just in a bit of a different situation,” said Ms. Maurer, who organized virtual movie nights for quarantining students with boxed fresh made popcorn delivered to each door, a perk plucked from past summer conferences, and one way to make it easier to force college students to stay in a dorm room for ten days.
Back at Kaufman Astoria Studios, a crew member walked by carrying a large sheet cake for the key grip’s birthday. Dr. Dahl’s precisely plucked eyebrows rose. “They can’t eat that in there,” she said wistfully, but without remorse. They also cannot blow out candles and she will encourage clapping rather than singing. “I try to be really polite and nice about reminders, I’ll try to use humor and make a joke of it,” Dr. Dahl said. “But it’s hard to be the nag.”
But the nagging will persist for the foreseeable future, according to Dr. Adamson. “A C.C.O. position will continue for several years,” she said, depending on the prevalence in the community, “There will still be variants circulating two years from now.”
“I would be happy to not have a Covid career,” Dr. Dahl said. “It’s a bummer.” She says she jokes that people have had to pivot, “and I pivoted into a cul-de-sac.” Though her film set exposure has reignited a dormant screenwriting hobby. In addition to an ongoing project about her father, a Syrian immigrant to North Dakota who was a “low-level C.I.A. spy,” the other is percolating in real time.
“I think it would be hilarious to do a series like ‘The Office’ but based on being a Covid compliance officer,” she said. “I mean, it writes itself.”