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Covid testing for the stars: As cameras roll again, a new cottage industry emerges

From the Video Music Awards to film productions, small businesses are providing on-site, on-demand Covid-19 testing.
Image: Live Better Solutions
With production resuming around the country, there is growing need for immediate, on-site Covid-19 testing all over the country. Small private companies like Live Better Solutions are stepping in, creating a new and growing cottage industry.Live Better Solutions

NASHVILLE, Tennessee — As a trauma nurse in an emergency room, Kirstin Broc-Reyes had seen her share of chaotic scenes in hospitals, but nothing prepared her for being on the set of a music video for the first time.

As CEO of Live Better Solutions, which provides on-site private Covid-19 testing, Broc-Reyes administers Covid-19 tests to production employees, crews and talent. She also serves as a Covid-19 compliance officer, which involves maintaining safety protocols, like mask wearing and social distancing, on set.

It’s a collision of two different worlds: While she might be an ace in the ER, Broc-Reyes doesn’t have to worry about stepping into camera lines there.

“The crew was constantly telling me to move,” she said. “Now I’ve learned to ask where the ‘no-go’ zones are.”

Thanks to agreements signed among unions and the industry within the last few months and strict new Covid-19 compliant guidelines, cameras on movie and television productions are starting to roll again. That has meant a growing need for immediate, on-site Covid-19 testing all over the country. Small private companies like Broc-Reyes’ are stepping in, creating a new and growing cottage industry.

In Tennessee, Bob Raines, executive director of the Tennessee Entertainment Commission, estimates they’ve seen a 40 percent increase in film permits and projects since May.

Colleen Bell, executive director of the California Film Commission, said a comprehensive mandatory testing regime is the cornerstone of a safe set in a pre-vaccine environment. “Without testing, the entire cast and crew would be working in environments with unknown risk,“ she said.

This summer’s MTV Video Music Awards was one of the first live shows under the new Covid-19 testing protocols, and for Jackie Barba, ViacomCBS senior vice president of production, it was daunting to oversee it all.

“We had no footprint, we had no playbook,” Barba said. “VMA’s were the first tentpole out of the gate.”

Now two months later, Barba is taking lessons learned from the VMAs and using them for the CMT Music Awards taking place on Oct. 21 in Nashville. She says production changes are based on an updated knowledge of health and science.

The show is pivoting away from indoor production and shooting at outdoor locations — which Barba says are safer and more efficient.

Image: Live Better Solutions
Live Better Solutions have administered tests at truck stop parking lots for clients who don’t have time to drive to the company’s offices, and they have done house calls in patients’ garages. Live Better Solutions

The Covid-19 testing timelines for production crews look like a football coach’s playbook. Teams are divided into zones based on their proximity to country stars on site. Before going on set, high-profile crews take two Covid-19 tests within a six day period and another test within 72 hours of production.

“Our No. 1 priority is the health and safety of our workers,“ Barba says. “We want them to feel that way on and off site.”

Country stars and crew can also request concierge Covid-19 testing at home. Broc-Reyes says the tests are a big human equalizer.

She recalled the time an A-list country star drove up to her testing site on one hot and humid Tennessee afternoon: “She pulls right up beside me, opens the door, gets the test, and doesn't even flinch. I was shocked.”

Broc-Reyes launched Live Better Solutions in March with two intensive care unit nurses and a doctor from Ascension Saint Thomas Hospital in Nashville and has seen a fast growth in testing.

She said having a medical doctor with prescriptive authority on their team enables Live Better Solutions to obtain the tests they need.

Their first week in operation, they administered four tests. A week later, they did 100. The company now averages 500 tests a week and is booked through October. Broc-Reyes said they’re a six figure company now and are on their way to becoming a seven-figure organization.

Broc-Reyes’ team, which now consists of six nurses and their medical director, administer Covid-19 tests for both video production and corporate clients. They’ve worked on shoots starring Keith Urban, Darius Rucker and Carrie Underwood. They’ve administered tests at truck stop parking lots for clients who don’t have time to drive to the company’s offices, and they have done house calls in patients’ garages.

Image: Matt Blair and Allison Gale
Allison Gale and Matt Blair of BedHead Films regularly hire Covid-19 compliance officers for their productions.BedHead Films

Matt Blair, a director in Nashville and partner Allison Gale of Bedhead Films, are following their trade association’s guidance and won’t shoot without a Covid-19 compliance officer on the set. They’ve hired Live Better Solutions several times. “Having her on set allows everyone to do their job. She makes everyone feel safe,” Blair said.

Whether at a drive-through site or in a tent, Broc-Reyes and team follow safety parameters set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. She and her team teach cast and crew members how to drink properly without uncovering their noses and have escorted people off the sets when they don’t comply with safety measures.

“The worst that’s happened is we’ve been spit on as we escorted the violators out. But it’s all in a day’s work,” Broc-Reyes said.

They administer Polymerase Chain Reaction nasal swab tests, which are required by most unions. Results arrive in six to 24 hours from a lab outside Nashville and are normally 99.9 percent accurate if correctly collected, she said. Live Better Solutions also performs saliva sample tests and the rapid antibody blood tests. Since the company has certification to act as a lab, they can get those results back within 10 minutes because the blood tests are done on site.

Before Covid-19 shut down film and TV production in Tennessee, the state was on track for another banner year: In 2019, film and video shoots brought in more than $100 million to the state’s economy, according to Raines. “I mean literally it was there one day, and then you woke up and it was gone. It just went dark,” he said.

California, which according to a 2018 study led the nation in film production, suffered devastating economic impacts from the pandemic. “This wasn’t a fade to black, it was a snap to black,” Bell said.

In New York, film and TV production are resuming based on rigorous N.Y. Department of Health guidance, which includes everything from physical distancing on the set and at locations to mask wearing.

Peter Kurland, a union agent representing movie and television workers in Tennessee and Mississippi, said testing is the anchor to these agreements. “Everybody has to adapt because everybody wants to be safe,” he said.

Barba agrees. “You either embrace it and move on and grow, or you find another line of work. It’s the world we live in today.”