Mainstream Crew Member's Death Raises Concerns About COVID Safety

LOS ANGELES—The death of an assistant director due to COVID-19 on the set of a mainstream commercial is raising concerns about safety on production shoots during the pandemic.

According to a Los Angeles Times story last week by Anousha Sakoui, John Nolan, an assistant director based in Texas, went into cardiac arrest and died on Aug. 26 after battling the illness for weeks. Nolan's family revealed the news in public journal entries on the website CaringBridge, the newspaper reported.

Although it’s unclear when or where Nolan contracted the disease, he began developing symptoms of the virus after working on a commercial production in Austin, Texas, in mid-July. He tested positive for COVID-19 on July 29 and by Aug. 5, he was in intensive care and placed on a ventilator at a Georgetown, Texas, hospital, the family wrote in the journal.

John Elmore, a 20-year veteran assistant director and colleague of Nolan’s, told the L.A. Times that Nolan’s death has ignited debate among film industry members on social media about whether it's safe to return to sets.

Many weighed in online about the lack of testing on sets, while others defended the return to production.

Commercials, which generally have smaller crews and shorter shoots than film or TV productions, don’t require COVID-19 testing under current health orders or film industry guidelines.

“Some people are afraid,” Elmore told the paper. “They’re thinking of just getting out of the business completely. It’s important to know what happened and what still needs to be done for this industry to get back to work safely.”

But for Mike Stabile, spokesman for the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), the mainstream entertainment industry could learn a lesson from the adult industry, which has developed its own aggressive testing strategy for COVID-19.

"With a virus like COVID, it's crucial to remember there is no such thing as a safe set, only safer sets," Stabile told AVN. "That's why it's essential to use every tool we have, including testing, to identify potential carriers and limit transmission. Testing may not be perfect, but it's a critical tool to reduce risk. If commercial producers feel that they can't adequately test given their short duration of productions, they should look to the adult industry and PASS."

PASS, or the Performer Availability Screening Service, is the FSC's centralized database widely used in the adult industry to check performers' clearance of a standard panel of STI tests in order to be greenlighted to work. In the wake of COVID-19, PASS added a separate indicator in its database for those who test for the virus within the PASS system, and issued a general advisory on COVID-19 testing for those who choose to get screened for it elsewhere.

Stabile explained that rigid testing and strict adherence to COVID-19 guidelines will be the key to an effective return to production for mainstream and adult industry productions. "Like commercial production, our crew and talent also work on multiple sets in a relatively short period of time. However, because we test every 1-2 days, and because testing is done industry-wide and through a centralized system database, we're better able to identify risk throughout the industry and limit transmission. It's not easy, and it's not cheap, but it's not impossible to do," he explained.

"In fact, we're currently developing a pilot program with a mainstream producer that could potentially help them better track testing with their talent and crew through a central database, based on PASS. If successful, it could pose a solution to the problems that commercial and other mainstream productions face."

[Ed. note: Testing provider Talent Testing Service (TTS) exited the PASS system in June, however, TTS does maintain its own separate database of talent availability statuses accessible to all its patrons.]