COVID-19 safety stars in NM films

Director Sheridan O’Donnell on the set of “Little Brother,” which is currently filming in New Mexico. (Courtesy of Keagan Karnes)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico’s film industry has come roaring back to life this year and it has so far managed to avoid significant COVID-19 outbreaks.

Many credit the stringent protocols put in place by the industry.

Film and TV productions in New Mexico got the green light to resume in September 2020.

According to the New Mexico Film Office, from Sept. 1, 2020, through Sept. 1, 2021, there have been 176,598 COVID tests administered throughout the various productions. Of those, 183 were positive.

“This is a testament to the film industry as they want to mitigate and remain safe,” said Amber Dodson, New Mexico Film Office director. “There have been less than eight productions that have paused for their own safety during the last year.”

As of Aug. 31, there were 18 film and 24 TV productions in various phases currently in the state.

When the film industry paused in March 2020, leaders spent months developing protocols that would be put in place when it resumed.

In June 2020, the White Paper was created by a Task Force of the Industry-Wide Labor-Management Safety Committee describing health and safety guidelines to resume film and TV production.

It outlines protective measures to be used, including regular screening, diagnostic testing, use of personal protective equipment, cleaning and disinfecting work sites and appropriate response should an employee contract COVID-19 or be exposed to it.

Wearing masks is normal on film sets in New Mexico. (Courtesy of Keagan Karnes)

The New Mexico Film Office also created Back2One, which promotes increasingly safe and healthy work practices and workplaces for the film/TV community, specifically in regard to the spread of infectious diseases. It also ushers in a smart and safe return to production and help ensure sustained success.

Dodson said one example of a protocol put in place for a New Mexico production is that each production has to give the Film Office its test results and if someone tests positive, the state has to be notified within four hours.

Heather Shreckengost is a health and safety manager for Tareco S/4 and works daily to ensure that productions are following the rules.

“The studios are the ones who write and develop the protocols,” Shreckengost said. “They do vary by production. My main role is to ensure that all on set are wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) properly.”

Being on set has changed in the last year.

When the cameras are rolling, masks don’t have to be worn, Shreckengost explains.

“Once filming stops, the masks have to come back on,” she said. “Everyone also has to maintain a safe distance of at least 6 feet. It can be difficult with small shooting locations, but that’s when size limitations are put into effect.”

Shreckengost’s job varies from day to day, though the one constant is ensuring everyone’s safety on set.

“I have to make sure we have enough PPE, as well as training anyone on set with how to properly wear a mask,” she said. “I order specialty items such as commercial grade air purifiers. As we move locations, the logistics have to be done in advance before anyone starts filming.”

Dodson said COVID has changed the way productions operate.

She said most days are shorter because testing takes up more time.

“I’ve actually heard from producers that because of COVID, it’s made for longer production schedules,” Dodson said. “Each production is hiring extra staff. Productions are shooting for more days.”

Dodson also credits the film industry’s ability to pivot quickly for its success in having a low transmission rate.

“Productions are nimble and efficient,” Dodson said. “It serves each production well to be as safe and as stringent as possible. They don’t want to miss a single moment of their time because it costs money to shut down a production.”

Shreckengost also keeps track of the COVID variants that pop up in the state.

“We do adjust to keep everyone safe,” she said. “We have to treat everyone as if they are an exposure risk. If we get shut down, it costs productions a lot of money. Then there’s the health aspect of it too. It helps to have a team that is committed to implement and execute the protocols.”

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