Even with their shows closed down and many of them out of work, the wardrobe, costume and prop artists of IATSE have identified a critical need during the COVID-19 health crisis that they can help fill: masks.
No, not the kinds of items you’d wear to a fancy ball or a Halloween party. We’re talking about the estimated 3.5 billion protective face masks that are going to be needed to fight the pandemic. And not just masks… hospital gowns and surgical scrubs and gowns to protect people in the medical profession who are treating COVID-19-infected patients. There’s also a call for gloves, booties, Tyvek suits and all other manner of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Hospitals need them in great supply. And Hollywood had them. Or they can make them.
Popular medical-themed shows like “911,” “Grey’s Anatomy” or any show that had a medical or emergency-themed setting or plotline have stashes of PPEs that were not being used. The same holds true for medical supply companies that also serve the motion picture industries. So representatives of IATSE Local 892, 705 and 44 put out the call and the supplies started coming in. Local 44 President Tobey Bays recalls sending out an email on a Sunday and getting a donation of 200 N95 masks two hours later.
“It’s almost ridiculous that we didn’t think of it before,” said Analucia McGorty, a Local 892 costume designer based in New York. “There’s a great website, donateppe.org which is a wonderful resource for any production team that might be trying to find out where to take these things. It’s not the best idea to contact the hospitals directly. They’re a little busy right now.”
McGorty works on the Ryan Murphy-produced show “Pose,” and parts of the first three seasons have taken place in a hospital during the AIDS epidemic. The show’s assistant production manager, Kip Myers, has a lot of friends who are doctors and nurses and Myers learned of the need for PPE even before the pandemic worsened, and the shortage emerged.
Several of Murphy’s shows quickly donated. McGorty took a shipment of “Pose” gowns, scrubs, gloves and masks to be delivered to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York.
“After I saw how helpful it was, I sent it out to the CDG phone tree,” McGorty said. “We’re all such great fiends and we know so many people across the country. A lot of friends sent it up phone tree. ‘Blacklist’ donated five giant boxes of stuff to Bellevue. Universal also opened up its costume shop and donated. This is the kind of leadership I want to see from everybody and it’s been amazing.”
With IATSE’s West Coast office coordinating the effort, Locals 44 (Affiliated property Craftspersons) and 705 (Motion Picture Costumers) have joined the effort as well. In addition to collecting donations of PPE for distribution to hospitals, Local 44 members are making protective face shields. The shields are made out of polycarbonate and are attached using zip ties. Unlike paper masks these shields can be cleaned, sterilized and used repeatedly. The local is working with signatory houses design houses to create the prototype.
Once the materials are all in place and the patterns approved, an army of workers stand ready to start manufacturing them.
“A lot of the machinery is a computer operated router so they can cut these patterns from a computer design so they all look exactly the same,” said IATSE 44 President Tobey Bays. “Our members are prop makers and instead of maybe using wood or metal, they’re using the tool to cut these thin patterns out of plexiglass. We also have drapers, upholsterers and prop sewing persons and they certainly have the sewing and pattern cutting skills.”
“There’s no shortage of people willing to step up and wanting to do this,” he added. “That’s our ability: to take something, go with it quickly, make last minute changes, all that kind of stuff. I think once we get our materials figured out and our patterns I think we can probably produce quite a volume.”
Local 705 President Nickolaus Brown had also put out a call via Facebook for PPE donations and to see whether members were available to manufacture face masks. He quickly learned that other IATSE locals were doing the same thing.
In addition to coordinating the membership of three different locals to work toward the same common goal, IATSE leaders have found the social distancing requirements of the pandemic to present additional challenges. Members who are sewing or manufacturing PPEs in their homes need to get their materials with as little interaction as possible.
“It’s been a huge crunch to get the materials to people,” said Brown who has been picking up and delivering fabric. “The person who is cutting the fabric is leaving it on the porch for me, and I go in and swoop it up. We’re making every effort to keep everybody safe.”
The mask-making effort has been aided by donations from fabric supply houses such as Ragfinders, JOANN Fabric and Michael’s, both of which are donating thousands of yards of cloth for the efforts.
Brown says he is especially impressed the inter-union partnership.
“In my 25 years in IATSE, I haven’t seen a coordinated effort like this one. It’s been incredible,” Brown said. “During a pandemic, everybody is trying to figure everything out and we’re all in crisis mode. To understand how passionate people are who have dedicated heir lives to a craft and to take those skills and utilize them in a real world application that can have benefits for everybody…I think that’s amazing.”
“We are so proud of our members and of all the locals who are committing time and energy to this effort and bring to the table some specialized skills that will make a huge difference in times of crisis,” he added. “Union pride is a real thing.”