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Someone on Set Tested Positive – Now What?

Shooting in a Pandemic

This is an update to my Getting Back on Set as COVID-19 Cases Surge post, so definitely read that one first! 

The Safe Actor Bubble

The great thing about being on location during a pandemic is having everyone in the cast isolated, away from family and friends, only interacting with people who have tested negative from the start (and continue to test negative every three days). It is a bubble from pandemic madness and feels safer than anywhere else right now.

actors selfie in the mule on set

Natalia Mann, Amanda Detmer, and Lorynn York on the set of “A California Christmas”

But the production team for the movie Natalia, my 11-year-old, just wrapped, learned there is one loophole: the nurses or medics coming to test cast and crew were not isolated with us. They were locals and as healthcare workers are extremely careful, but also more exposed.

And It’s … Not a Wrap

It was 10 pm on a Saturday evening and we were about to shoot the big party scene—Natalia’s final scene. The background actors had all gone through two rounds of testing and had just arrived for their big moment. The chandeliers were lit, the band was playing, the fake bar was buzzing, the food on the buffet was perfectly styled. Then the producer, Ali Afshar, sucked the energy from the room with the announcement we all dreaded. He had just gotten word that someone who had been on set on Wednesday, and only Wednesday, had tested positive. This person was asymptomatic and feeling fine so risk of transmission was low but production would halt immediately. We would all have to do drive-up testing the following day and await results before recommencing.

Natalia on set with Ali

Natalia with producer and actor Ali Afshar

The shoot is not a go until everyone tests negative once again. “It’s just a movie; it’s your health that matters,” Ali said. He means it. This producer is one of the most sincere people I have met in the business. Watch his movie, American Wrestler, about his escape from Iran, adjustment into a hostile high school setting in California, and triumph on the wrestling mat, and you’ll see where Ali’s integrity, passion, and grit come from.

I told him that we weren’t on set on Wednesday. Natalia had the day off. But everyone had to come to set on Wednesday to be tested so we were in contact with this person, he said. Aha. Clearly it was someone on the medical team (they are not allowed to reveal who but this process of deduction narrowed it down quite easily).

Medic COVID Protocol

The medic or nurse who swabs each cast and crew member’s nasal cavity wears a mask, covered with a face shield, and of course gloves. The victim (it doesn’t really hurt but can be a little uncomfortable) lowers the nose portion of their mask. The swab is long so some distance is maintained and no one speaks for this 10-second interaction. The Wednesday testing took place outside in a large airy barn with wide doors open. We were in and out in a minute. So I was not concerned about transmission.

Production hoped that we would have our Sunday morning tests back by late Monday or Tuesday morning so that shooting could begin again Tuesday evening. Natalia, who had cried that Saturday morning about having to leave the next day, cried tears of joy that we could stay longer.

Waiting for Results and Exploring Sonoma County

Natalia biking in front of grape vines

Natalia biking in Sonoma

Staying longer gave us time to bike around the vineyards and explore a woodsy hike in Sonoma. Results did not come back in time to start shooting Tuesday. Our flight had to be shifted back again. I’m sure it was frustrating and costly but weathering these delays is going to be a production norm for the time-being (unless rapid testing becomes more accurate; the Screen Actor’s Guild is not approving its use at this time).

Natalia posing in front of a beautiful view of Bodega Bay that looks like a painting

Natalia in Sonoma State Park near Bodega Bay

We took advantage of another day free to explore and hit the Bodega Bay trails. Talia, a resistant hiker, called it the most beautiful hike in the world. She might be right. Then we returned to the deck at The Birds Cafe, named after the spot where Hitchcock’s classic thriller was filmed, where we’d eaten after a gallop on the beach nearby (thank you, Horse N Around!). Not only is the food scrumptious, the safety protocol is more extreme and pleasantly executed than I’ve seen since Coronavirus came visiting—and started making a flock of killer birds seem preferable!

Red and green plants leading down to cliff to ocean

View of the Pacific, Bodega Bay trailhead

girl on horse in dunes

Horsin’ Around offers fun trail rides through the dunes and onto the beach


The Birds sign with black vulture

The Birds Cafe, where Hitchcock’s “The Birds” thriller was shot, in Bodega Bay

Results had not arrived by Wednesday morning. Another call sheet arrived, with call-time pushed back to late afternoon. Time ticked by… no email confirming negative results. Another call sheet. An evening call-time: 7:30 pm. 7 pm came and went. No email. Another call sheet arrived. 8 pm call-time. Finally, at 7:30 pm, the email from the lab hit my inbox (and production’s). Negative! Two minutes later, a text came in: you are approved to work, new call-time 8:30 pm!

We headed back to the party set where it felt like a party, because everyone was so relieved and thrilled to be back. That’s the beauty of the movie business. The grueling part is booking the job. The jobs are the fun part. Cast and crew can’t wait to get there and make magic happen. So they will jump through hoops involving regular nasal swabs, cumbersome safety protocol, and multiple schedule changes without a complaint. I can’t think of other employees in another industry who would. It’s why the film industry will find a way through. Just as we did that evening, when the music played again, the cast kicked up their heels, the director yelled cut, and everyone gave Natalia a heartfelt send-off.

It’s a Wrap!

The remaining week of shooting went off without a hitch. Keep “A California Christmas” on your radar this holiday season, and remember, as you are watching what looks like pre-pandemic normalcy, everything that was going on behind the scenes to make it happen. Congrats to the producers on getting one of the first films of the pandemic successfully in the can and huge congrats to writer/producer/star Lorynn York (aka Lauren Swickard) for her writer/producer credit at age 27!

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