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‘Why still mask?’ prep athletes ask

Nena Dorame is vaccinated. But she still has to wear the mask.

Jaydon Gobert has severe asthma. He still has to wear the mask.

All over New Mexico, high school spring sports athletes continue to wear masks in what has become for them the not-so-great outdoors.

And many coaches and athletes – both those who have been vaccinated and even those who have not – are questioning why the masks must stay on for their outdoor sports.

“It feels like we’re the only people anymore who have to wear masks,” said Albuquerque High’s Dorame, a girls tennis player who recently graduated and is headed to Stanford later this summer. “We’re all so far apart. Tennis players are across the court. I don’t really understand why I have to, because I’m fully vaccinated as well.”

There has been frustration and confusion among prep athletes this spring as the state continues to mandate that education-based athletes must wear masks for practices and competitions.

“We shouldn’t have to wear them,” said Cleveland’s Luke Wysong, who competes in track and field events for Cleveland High. He, too, is vaccinated. “I don’t see why it would be a problem for us not wearing them.”

The high school sports calendar expires June 26 with state tournaments in baseball, softball and big-school track and field.

A majority of the athletes the Journal interviewed for this story said the masks, combined with the heat, are making breathing increasingly difficult. Many spoke of struggling to perform at a level they’d expect without the masks, especially track athletes.

“It’s just hard to breathe, because there’s no air flow to your lungs, and you’re already breathing hard enough,” Wysong said. “Pretty much prohibits any air you could possibly get.”

Prep athletes, especially the ones who have received their vaccine shots but certainly not limited to them, are perplexed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently eased its guidelines on the wearing of masks outdoors, saying fully vaccinated Americans don’t need to cover their faces anymore unless in a big crowd of strangers. None of the five spring sports – baseball, softball, golf, tennis and track and field – draws a big crowd of strangers among the competitors.

The state of New Mexico last month said nonvaccinated individuals didn’t have to wear their masks when exercising outside.

The Journal asked the office of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham why vaccinated athletes have to continue to compete in masks, and also if there was any planned policy change on the immediate horizon.

“In the Department of Health’s view, not enough kids are vaccinated yet,” said spokesman Tripp Stelnicki. “We’re certainly making progress. But we’re not at the point where they feel comfortable removing that requirement.”

Stelnicki said there might be light at the end of the tunnel for the athletes, however.

“The DOH and the governor’s office are working on a plan to tie vaccinations, vaccination rates among teens and schools or districts to a (change) that would remove the mask requirement before the season ends,” he said. “That is the hope.”

In the meantime, the athletes move forward as best they can.

“It really doesn’t make sense anymore to have high school athletes wear masks,” said Artesia track athlete Carley Simer, who is not yet vaccinated. “It prohibits breathing.”

Just ask Highland junior Jaydon Gobert, who runs the 400-meter dash.

His twin brother Jaylon, a hurdler, is in the minority of athletes the Journal interviewed, saying that he hadn’t “experienced a difference between me running without (a mask) and running with one. For some reason, I still do OK.” He is unvaccinated.

But his brother has asthma. Jaydon Gobert was born with it, and competing in the mask can be debilitating, physically. He said he had to scratch out of his last race because of the mask.

“I needed the break,” he said, “so I can catch my breath. … It’s a lot harder for me to control my breathing. It’s a little frustrating.”

One longtime local baseball coach was mystified that teams have to wear masks, particularly in the field when they are playing defense.

“Nine players spread out over five acres,” Rio Grande baseball coach Orlando Griego said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Payne Kent plays first base for the Rio Rancho baseball team, so he frequently converses with opposing players at his station.

“It’s kind of crazy,” said Kent. He is not vaccinated. “At first base, I talk to a lot of players. They think it’s crazy, too. Especially during the spring sports, and especially when you’re not in contact.”

Cibola soon-to-be-senior golfer Aiden Krafft (who is vaccinated) is a state champion in his sport, and the physical demands in golf are modest compared to the other four spring sports.

“For golf,” Krafft said, “it’s not really that terrible. But it definitely messes with your thinking. When you’re looking down at the golf ball, you see it on your nose. … The frustrating part … is that when I’m on my own I don’t have to wear one.”

Indeed, athletes on their campuses must wear masks during practices or events. But that requirement goes away if they leave campus to exercise or practice together at a site away from their school.

“I have so many mixed opinions about it,” said Eldorado’s girls state cross country champion, Laurynn Sisneros, who is vaccinated and who runs distance races in track. “On one hand, I really want people to be safe. On the other hand, I don’t know if it’s doing more harm than good. It’s hard to be at your top performing level if you’re breathing is faltering.”

Los Alamos’ Adrian Will is a senior who runs distances (400, 800, 1,600) for the Hilltoppers, and the distance runners are probably being impacted more than most athletes, especially as the heat index increases. Will, who is vaccinated, said the consensus among athletes is that the masks are no longer needed.

“First, we’re outside, and being outside is safe. We’re also pretty distanced, not clumped together,” he said. “And then also, I feel a lot of people our age are vaccinated. And that makes it way more safe. At this point, it’s a bit ridiculous.”

Artesia’s Simer said if given the chance, she would tell policy-makers this:

“I understand the need to keep people safe and to minimize the virus,” Simer said. “Because that should be everyone’s No. 1 goal. But I think it’s past time and overdue.”




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