Film and television production resumed during the coronavirus pandemic, and even continued on in areas despite communities like Los Angeles in late 2020 being ravaged.

The AMPTP, SAG-AFTRA, and other labor organizations earlier in the year proposed to California and New York in their White Paper that actors would return to work, and in so doing, work on camera without face masks or other personal protective equipment (PPE).

Probably no actor who was not a stuntperson ever thought taking an acting job could threaten one’s health and life.  The threat of contracting the contagion and the potential of coming down with a life-threatening case of COVID-19 were very real for many actors. Today, the virus continues to be a threat. With recent news out of the United Kingdom of a much more contagious strain of the virus now existing, perhaps that threat becomes heightened.

That said, earlier in 2020, labor organizations also laid out standards that not only would face masks be mandatory at all times aside from when on camera, but that coronavirus testing would be frequent.

Many sets standardized that no worker (at least in certain areas where vulnerable actors might be) should wear anything different than a KN95 mask, which provides an arguably high-level of protection from spreading and perhaps contracting any respired virus.

And almost all sets demanded that no worker could be on set without a negative coronavirus test within a certain period before reporting to work. For those workers lucky enough to be working frequently on the same job during this time when still much of the industry was rocked with unemployment, those workers might be required to test while actually on the job, even several times a week.

Productions ended up hiring new departments for COVID compliance and for COVID testing. COVID compliance departments were new safety departments. COVID testing departments were staffed with nurses, whose day-in, day-out, was sticking Q-tips into nostrils over and over again of prospective and current workers of the production.

While most of those workers would test negative, every once and awhile, one or more would test positive. COVID compliance departments would then take charge and require anyone testing positive to quarantine, then do a contact-tracing interview with the positive worker for that person’s accounting of any close contacts. (A close contact of late has been defined as anyone within six feet of the positive person for fifteen minutes cumulatively over a 24-hour period.) The COVID compliance departments would then quickly call those close contacts, telling them that they needed to quarantine, too. (Often, these periods of about ten days or so were paid at base rates.)

As for stand-ins, even upon a return to production, most were rocked with a lack of work. However, not all stand-ins had it bad. Some stand-ins found out that they were being “carried” on a production. Typically, for them, this meant rather than sporadic days on a job, or bouncing around to different stand-in jobs, one production would hire the stand-in for five days a week, and on some of those days not bring the stand-in in to work. The agreement meant the stand-in couldn’t take other production work, or might have to come in simply to test on days off. On those off days, the stand-in might get his or her base rate.

Coincidentally, stand-ins faced the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan dramatically, and traumatically, changing its eligibility requirements, making it very hard for many in SAG-AFTRA to even qualify for health insurance. As was the common and painful refrain, the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan made these changes “during a pandemic.” The new requirements for qualification were 100 days of work or covered earnings of $25,950.  For carried stand-ins who might have prior worked sporadically, they lucked out with more days of work toward their days. (Plus, stand-ins didn’t actually have to work 100 days. Because of a quirk in how the Health Plan counts days, each day of work for most TV/film stand-ins equated to, at least, about 1.174 days, so stand-ins wouldn’t actually have to work 100 days to qualify.  Most had to work around 85 days, give or take.)

For those stand-ins fortunate enough to land either carried stand-in work or just regular hiring on a production, compared to others in SAG-AFTRA, they were also fortunate because of the relative safety of their union work. While those working on camera had to remove masks when working on camera, stand-ins, by AMPTP and SAG-AFTRA arrangement, did not have to remove their masks. This meant directors of photography had to light shots with stand-ins, who were covering nearly half their faces with a mask. In some cases, productions even mandated that stand-ins wear eye protection. In those instances, such reflective surfaces added extra obstacles for those lighting shots.

Those stand-ins regularly working found themselvesat times with more work on a job, with productions doubling up stand-ins to stand in for other actors, when pre-pandemic the production might have brought in another stand-in for the work. But this added work for stand-ins was sometimes problematic, as productions sometimes did not bring in a regular stand-in when that stand-in’s work was given to another stand-in with an earlier call, whose work was doubled up.

But testing was a boon for stand-ins. While the stipend for getting tested on a day when not working was insultingly lower than for all other union workers on the job (everyone else got $250, while stand-ins and background actors got only $100 for the same testing), the privilege of getting tested meant confidence that knowing for sure whether or not one was positive for SARS-CoV-2 — at least since the test. Sure, there was the occasional false positive with implications on that worker and that worker’s close contacts, but given that some people in the United States were waiting two to four hours to get tested, stand-ins and others in TV/film on production with a COVID testing unit frequently could pop in, get swabbed, and pop out in a matter of minutes. In about one to two days, results would be in. If the stand-in worked frequently enough, that could have meant testing three to four times a week, and thus a cascade and continuum of negative results and positive health. Rapid tests would have results in ten to fifteen minutes, as a more immediate indicator of infection.

Of course, sometimes stand-ins also worked as photo doubles. If the work was simply as a hand double, that stand-in might be able to work in a mask. At least as long as the mask was not in a reflection… But if the photo-doubling was a bit more visible, then the stand-in might have to remove his or her mask, making that person vulnerable. But given the frequent testing of most around on set, and given also the frequency of mask-wearing in the person’s vicinity, the stand-in working as a photo double had, generally speaking, a minimal risk during the relatively brief time working on camera without a mask.

Plus, another vulnerability for stand-ins was that there was almost no way if one stand-in tested positive, other stand-ins would avoid quarantine. This is because many stand-ins still had to stand or sit next to each other in the setup of shots for periods that cumulatively exceeded fifteen minutes in a 24-hour period. Maybe not all of second team would be knocked out because of one infected stand-in, but the likelihood of more than one stand-in being forced to quarantine if another was infected was pretty high. In other words, it was hard for stand-ins to social distance, because their job often required being within six feet of each other.

All said, stand-in work during the pandemic, considering the requirement to wear masks, was a boon if you could get the work. It meant less risk of infection than others in SAG-AFTRA faced. Stand-in work also afforded the ability to test for coronavirus infection, sometimes frequently, and sometimes with compensation. Stand-in work may have even involved days not going into work but being paid, and earning more money and days toward health insurance than were this not a pandemic.

I have worked frequently as a stand-in on two productions since September. I am extraordinarily grateful for the work. I am also extraordinarily grateful for the testing and the mask requirement for stand-ins. I don’t expect that gratitude to wane. The coronavirus continues to be a threat to production and public health, and the ability to work right now feels more like a privilege than a given. I celebrate all of those stand-ins who have been able to work again. I feel pain for those stand-ins who are prevented from working again. Hopefully, as vaccination increases, so with it will production restrictions. It doesn’t seem so now, but hopefully sooner than expected.

This is the last post on Stand-In Central for 2020. This year started with a call for attention on the handling of stand-ins. This year ended not how I expected. Perhaps that is a good thing, because by the spring I had imagined the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing would mean handling stand-ins would be less common. While I believe that is the case now, I don’t believe that it won’t re-emerge. So, we’ll have to revisit the issue later.

May 2021 mean a return to stand-in work for you, continued stand-in work for you, and safety and health for you whichever direction you end up in.

What was your 2020 experience like as a stand-in? Share your experiences in the comments below!