The White Paper came out early in the coronavirus pandemic to provide preliminary guidance for those planning to work in TV and film during the pandemic. It is the entertainment industry resource that essentially dictated that stand-ins don’t have to take off their masks when they are working.

The White Paper states, “Stand-ins should wear face coverings even if the performer they are standing in for may not.”

More than a year after that guidance, of course, stand-ins have started to see things happen on sets that compromise this clear guidance about their work.

Here are some things to consider when you’re standing in and you’re asked to remove your mask — or when you’re around stand-ins who are removing their masks.

What the White Paper Covers

The White Paper’s guidance largely applies to TV and film productions under SAG-AFTRA’s Television Agreement or Theatrical Agreement.  This is because the AMPTP and SAG-AFTRA negotiate these contracts, and both are “participants” in the White Paper. So, if you’re standing in on a production under one of these agreements, the White Paper’s guidance around stand-in work applies to your work.

More specifically, the Return to Work Agreement (RTWA) which the AMPTP, SAG-AFTRA, and several other unions negotiated incorporates sections of the White Paper as essentially enforceable RTWA contract language. Of those sections of the White Paper the RTWA incorporates is the section that states stand-ins should wear face coverings.

So, there is essentially contract language saying stand-ins should wear face coverings (i.e., masks). Asking stand-ins to unmask on a production signed to the RTWA is probably a contract violation. Put differently, you may have contract rights as a stand-in to keep your mask on in the event a production asks you to unmask during your work.

What the White Paper Doesn’t Cover (But Might to a Degree)

The White Paper’s guidance may also apply to TV productions under SAG-AFTRA’s Network Television Code (“Netcode”) agreement, because some of the studios working under the Netcode are listed as “participants” at the end of the White Paper.

But some other Netcode-signatory studios are absent from the list of “participants.” This implies that on some Netcode shows, you might find you’re asked to work without a mask if you’re standing in — at least for a short period of time.

It may simply depend on the production whether they follow the guidance in the White Paper around stand-ins and masks. A production might still follow the White Paper even if it was not somehow associated as a “participant.” For example, a non-union production that uses stand-ins may or may not follow the White Paper.

Why Do We Wear a Mask?

Primarily, you wear masks on set to protect others from your respiration.

Secondarily, you wear masks on set to protect yourself from others’ respiration.

Usually, people think masks are to primarily to protect yourself and secondarily to protect others, but that is not really the case.

So, when you are wearing a mask, understand you are primarily doing so to protect the cast and crew around you in the event you happen to be unknowingly sick.

It is important to frame mask-wearing in this light because when you do, you realize wearing a mask is not primarily for your safety but it is primarily for others’ safety. And your own safety is protected when others on set wear a mask. When you also wear a mask, you are given an extra level of safety.

So, mask-wearing is more of a responsibility than an interference with your freedom. Mask-wearing means you accept responsibility over the health and safety of others working around you. Mask-wearing is not simply an interference with your freedom, and mask-wearing is not primarily for your protection.

When and Where You Might Be Asked to Remove Your Mask

On some types of stand-in jobs, you might be asked to remove your mask.

Photo Shoots

For example, if you are standing in on a photo shoot, you most likely will be asked to remove your mask at some point when you are standing in. Photo shoots are not considered under the White Paper, or the White Paper may be lost to the production company running the photo shoot. Meaning, they might not necessarily accept that stand-ins should always wear masks on set.

On a photo shoot, lighting is many, many times more important than on a film or television set. There is a high level of particularity and subtlety in lighting for a photo shoot, and seeing how light and shadow falls on your face usually is very important. Also, it may be important to see your jaw line or other features a mask covers up, in order to see how light and shadow fall on them. Wearing a mask really can impede the work on a photo shoot.

Netcode Jobs

If you are doing a Netcode job, especially one that involves teleprompter use, you also might be asked to remove your mask.

This could be because the Netcode production doesn’t adhere to the White Paper and so doesn’t accept that stand-ins should always be masked (implying in some cases it is more appropriate for them to be unmasked, such as on-camera).

Requiring stand-ins to unmask could also be because teleprompter use implies talking, and a director’s ability to see your mouth and hear you speak is important.

What about Other Stand-Ins’ Removing Their Masks?

Even if you’re not on a photo shoot or a Netcode job, you might find stand-ins’ removing their masks.

For example, on a Television Agreement job (wherein stand-ins always wear masks pursuant to the White Paper’s guidance), I have seen stand-ins “help” DPs light a shot by momentarily pulling down a mask for lighting reasons.

This action is not endorsed by the White Paper. The implications of the White Paper are that stand-ins should remain masked when working, no matter if a DP has difficulty lighting you with a mask on. In fact, to date, many, many DPs have been able to light TV episodes and films using stand-ins while those stand-ins always remain masked.

In all likelihood, it is completely unnecessary to momentarily remove your mask for lighting purposes, and it may be inappropriate for someone to ask you to do so.

Assessing Risks When You’re Asked to Remove Your Mask While Standing In

If you are asked to remove your mask when you’re standing in, it is important to assess risks.

1. Talk to COVID Compliance

First off, it helps to be proactive when you’re a stand-in. If you’re new to a job, then when you arrive, seek out the COVID compliance officer and ask about mask-wearing on set. Explain that stand-ins sometimes are presented with the awkward situation of removing masks despite the White Paper’s guidance on mask-wearing for stand-ins. Ask the COVID compliance officer about what to do in such a situation — and listen to the response.

Gauge how serious the COVID compliance officer considers mask-wearing and mask removal. If the COVID compliance officer suggests he or she will always be on set, still ask about the situation when he or she is not on set and you’re asked to take off your mask. Basically, understand what should happen when someone takes off a mask, so that in the event you are asked to take off your mask but there’s no COVID compliance officer around, you can politely and correctly defend yourself and the protocols of the production.

Ben's Note!

In recent months, I have talked to COVID compliance officers around productions having stand-ins removing masks on set.

In these experiences, I’ve been very impressed with the care and seriousness they have taken when hearing my position around and generally against having stand-ins remove masks.

In one instance, the COVID compliance officer called SAG-AFTRA about the issue I reported, which led to SAG-AFTRA quickly calling the production to change the way production had been unmasking stand-ins. The production’s procedure of unmasking stand-ins changed that day, even after it had been shooting for several weeks. The COVID compliance officer even sought me out to thank me for speaking up about the issue.

If there is an issue around unmasking stand-ins, don’t hesitate to ask to speak to the COVID compliance officer or supervisor, and feel supported in your position.

2. Watch the COVID PAs Do Their Work

As you listen to and watch the COVID team on your job, gauge if their actions are serious or more or less “theatrical.” Do they seem to be on top of their job, or are they too lax for you to feel protected?

Making this assessment for yourself will help you understand how supported you will be in the event you’re standing in and asked to go unmasked.

3. Take a Moment Before Taking off Your Mask …

Now, assume you’re standing in and you’ve been asked to remove your mask.

Hopefully before this moment, you’ve already assessed some of your risks. But, in this moment, you may need to take a few seconds to assess immediate risks before actually removing your mask.

Recall that the primary reason for wearing a mask is to protect others. So, when you are unmasked, cast and crew that get near you while you’re maskless probably need additional protection such as a face mask or other eye protection (per protocols). It is your responsibility to put on your mask if someone without the proper safety gear comes near you while you’re maskless. Remember: You are protecting them. It is less the issue that they are subjecting you to potential exposure insofar as they are masked up, because their masks primarily serve to protect you from them.

Put differently: If you’re asked to take off your mask, and if someone is working around you without proper eye protection, then wait for that person to put on proper eye protection, politely ask the person to put on proper eye protection, or seek some help in ensuring everyone around you is wearing proper eye protection. Make sure this happens before you take off your mask. This is mainly because you want them to be safe from you.

4. … and Ask Yourself …

In case you are nervous about taking off your mask, consider other factors. Your answers to the questions below may help determine whether taking off your mask is as risky as you fear–or riskier. (Below is not medical advice but instead some presumed common-sense considerations. These considerations are believed to be current but may change over time.)

  • Are you vaccinated against COVID-19? If you are vaccinated, you may have better protection against infection than if you are not vaccinated. As of this post (August 25, 2021), it is currently unknown how much vaccination protection wanes over time, so when you were vaccinated may figure into your risk assessment when taking off your mask.
  • Are you working outdoors or indoors? If you are working outdoors (possibly meaning specifically in the sunlight), you may have much less risk working maskless than if you are working indoors. If you are working indoors, you may want to see if there are blowers circulating the air, which may give you better protection from infection. You may also want to consider the room size, as a smaller room may be riskier than a large, airy room.
  • Are crew members distant from you? If crew members are distant from you when you are maskless, you may be at a lower risk of infection than if they are close to you.
  • Are crew members putting on safety equipment when you are maskless and they are approaching you? While their safety equipment is more to protect them from you, you are vulnerable, and a lack of care about added safety equipment when you’re maskless may hint that these crew members aren’t sufficiently careful in their work, which could be a sign you are at a greater risk of infection. If someone from set dressing, props, the grip department, or others drop into your space, they usually need to be properly outfitted with safety gear.  If that’s not happening, put on your mask while they are too close to you. Once they leave, you can consider taking your mask back off. You may want to talk to COVID compliance after if you find there were far too many infractions when you were maskless.
  • Is a COVID compliance officer nearby or in eyesight when you are maskless? A COVID compliance officer around when you are maskless may help “referee” when crew members get close to you when you are maskless, or may even instruct you when to put back on your mask if production has forgotten to tell you to do so.
  • Do you live with anyone who is immunocompromised? If you do, this may make the seriousness of protocols when you are maskless even more serious. No one wants to become infected with COVID-19. No one especially wants to get infected at work because of a breach in safety protocol, and bring it home to infect someone else. Thinking of others who live with you may help you take risks more seriously.

Your Health and Safety Is Highly Important!

In general, when you are working as an employee, your concern for your on-set health and safety may constitute protected activity, meaning an employer may not lawfully retaliate against you in the event you speak up about COVID issues on set.

In other words, feel protected and supported to speak up about any concerns about going maskless when you’re standing in. Stifle any fear you may have about speaking up, being new, or thinking your questions are trivial.

In fact, practice speaking up, and you will only get better at doing so. It may help you to feel empowered on set to follow the advice to be proactive and seek out the COVID compliance officer for a quick discussion. Knowledge can sometimes mean power, and knowing what the protocols are on set around stand-ins and mask-wearing may mean you have the power to defend yourself in case you are asked to take off your mask.

As this is the time of the delta variant of the coronavirus, things are still quite dangerous on set. Try to avoid putting yourself in stand-in situations where you need to remove your mask. So, stick to stand-in jobs you know will honor mask requirements. But if you accept work that may ask you to remove your mask, consider the risks. Maybe they aren’t as bad as you think. Or … maybe they’re worse than you think?

Have you worked as a stand-in but been asked to work without a mask? Share your experiences in the comments below!