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Prep athletes can lose masks – if vaccinated

Vaccinated high school athletes can finally remove their masks.

With the 2021 spring/summer prep calendar only nine days from completion, the state on Thursday morning said those high school athletes who are fully vaccinated can compete on “the field of play” without a mask.

“Face coverings shall be worn at all times by participants three and older,” is the new language in New Mexico’s COVID-safe practices for youth sports, as released by the office of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. “The only exception is for fully vaccinated players on the field of play. A person is considered fully vaccinated when they reach two weeks after their second dose of Pfizer and Moderna or two weeks after their one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. …

“To ensure compliance, vaccination attestation must be tracked by the New Mexico Activities Association or the team’s affiliated sports association. Sports associations must report de-identified vaccination data to the Office of the Governor when requested.”

In short, high school athletes who are vaccinated can breathe – literally – more easily as the NMAA conducts state playoffs this week and next week in track and field, team tennis, golf, baseball and softball.

“We have always had the safety of our students as our top priority and have consistently followed the governor’s orders,” NMAA executive director Sally Marquez told the Journal. “We are happy that today’s change in policy will allow those students who are vaccinated to compete without masks.”

But the timing of the announcement means that athletes who have not yet had their full complement of vaccination shots won’t have enough time to become vaccinated before the June 26 end date of the high school sports calendar.

During the Class 1A state track and field meet Thursday at the University of New Mexico Track Complex, all athletes in competition were observed in masks. The meet began at 11 a.m., or five minutes before the notice came down from Santa Fe.

When it was announced, the runners in the 3,200-meter final already had begun their race.

“The timing of the announcement made it logistically impossible to make any changes to the Class 1A state track meet,” Marquez said at 1 p.m. Thursday.

The NMAA met with the state’s athletic directors via Zoom mid-afternoon Thursday.

At 5 p.m., Marquez said, it was the responsibility of the schools, and their athletic directors, to hash out which athletes had been vaccinated – and thus could compete without masks – and which had not.

The Class 2A state track meet is Friday, 3A on Saturday. The semifinals and finals of the state team tennis tournament are Saturday. State golf is Monday. State baseball and softball will be held throughout next week.

However, particularly in track and field, this could create some potential competitive disadvantages where some athletes are masked, and others are not.

Marquez admitted this is problematic, but unavoidable.

“While allowing vaccinated students only to compete without a mask might create an uneven playing field in certain instances, we have no choice but to follow the governor’s orders and will do everything we can to make sure our students have a fair and memorable experience,” Marquez said.

The state also said it was going to partner with youth programs around the state, to help “eligible youth teams to get vaccinated.”

The state laid out a lengthy incentive program – including cash incentives of up to $20,000 for “club/association fees, uniforms, camp programs or tournament fees” – for individual youth teams to get vaccinated from June 17-July 29, then retracted it later Thursday with a follow-up announcement and said nothing had been finalized or implemented.

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