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Editorial: It’s safe, and time, to let NM’s youth athletes unmask

As COVID cases remain low and vaccination rates rise along with June’s daily temperatures, high school tennis players such as Nena Dorame have good reason to wonder why they are still required to wear a mask as they face an opponent on the other side of the net.

“We’re all so far apart. I don’t really understand why I have to,” the Albuquerque High star, who is Stanford bound, says. “I’m fully vaccinated, as well.”

Cleveland High School’s Luke Wysong competes in track and field, and, like Dorame, is fully vaccinated. Also like Dorame, he thinks it’s time to shed the masks. “It’s just hard to breathe because there’s no air flow to your lungs,” he says. “It pretty much prohibits any air you could possibly get.”

Unlike other states, New Mexico isn’t ready to let youths breathe freely as they play spring sports in the great, wide-open outdoors.

“In the Department of Health’s view, not enough kids are vaccinated yet,” says Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki. “We’re not at the point where they feel comfortable removing that requirement.” He said the governor and DOH are working on a plan to tie vaccination rates among teens to a change in policy regarding the mask requirement for student-athletes.

He adds the “hope” is that the mandate could be lifted before season-ending tournaments in late June – when temperatures in the 90s are typical.

Hope aside, the continued mandate for prep sports no longer makes sense. “I understand the need to keep people safe and to minimize the virus,” says Artesia trackster Carley Simer, who is not yet vaccinated. “That should be everyone’s No. 1 goal. But I think it’s past time and overdue.” There is evidence to support that.

First, strong data has emerged that there is very little transmission of COVID in outdoor settings because the virus disperses rapidly. Outdoor transmission may account for less than 1% of all new cases, according to a recent New York Times story. Granted, the risk would be higher in a baseball dugout – where coaches could still require players to mask up. But to the kid in right field? Zero risk.

Second, there is absolutely no reason for a vaccinated teen to have to wear a mask while playing tennis, baseball or running track. Nobody else who is fully vaccinated is required to wear one, except in such settings as hospitals or physicians’ offices. They are not only protected, but also there is very little evidence they spread the virus. That change could, and should, be made today.

Finally, it’s true that young people can get really sick from COVID, but there is no disputing that older people are at much higher risk for a serious or deadly case.

As to New Mexico being an outlier, legal information retrieval website Justia reports that, as of June 2, 35 states no longer had statewide mask mandates. Those that did, including New Mexico, were a mixed bag focusing on indoor gatherings or crowded outdoor settings.

All our neighbors – Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Utah – are on the list of states without a mandate. Meanwhile, states such as Oregon, which has a mandate, lifted the mask requirement May 19 for anyone competing in or watching outdoor sports – a move heralded as a “big change for youth sports.” For indoor sports, fully vaccinated people may now remove their masks. Youth distance runners in Oregon were given some relief a month earlier, allowed to ditch the mask once they started the race.

The mandate at this point is unnecessary and unfair to players, and makes so little sense that it risks undercutting respect for legitimate requirements. Rio Grande High baseball coach Orlando Griego summed it up: “Nine players spread out over five acres. It’s ridiculous.”

Hard to argue. These kids play hard. It’s time to let them breathe freely.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.