No vaccine requirements for Lobo football fans just yet - Albuquerque Journal

No vaccine requirements for Lobo football fans just yet

Lobo quarterback Trae Hall, right, works out at University of New Mexico football practice on Wednesday, August 4, 2021. (Robert Browman/Albuquerque Journal)

There aren’t plans to require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test for those who attend next week’s University of New Mexico football opener at University Stadium, but administrators in the athletic department at least have discussed the possibility, deputy athletic director Dave Williams said.

Williams said ultimately, the call is not up to UNM’s athletics branch.

“If that decision is made by either the state government or by the university, we would enact what we have to enact,” Williams said.

The state will not be mandating UNM to require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test when UNM opens against Houston Baptist on Sept. 2.

“The state would absolutely welcome the implementation of additional COVID-19 safety measures at sporting facilities, including vaccination verification,” Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokesperson for the Governor’s office, wrote in an email.

LSU is requiring anyone attending Tiger Stadium who is 12 years of age or older to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within the last 72 hours, the school announced on Tuesday. Oregon and Oregon State have similar policies in place.

LSU cited a rise in COVID-19 cases and the “highly transmissible” Delta variant. That policy will go into effect for LSU’s home opener against McNeese State on Sept. 11.

Verifying vaccination and a negative COVID test would be subject to visual judgement of the proof and would result in “a logistical problem,” Williams said.

“The ticket-taker job does not double down with the checking-of-vaccination job,” Williams said. “It’s a hard thing to ask of your ticket-taker.”

“We thought about when we went to Hawaii (for a football game last November) and what protocols had to happen to enter the state, because they required testing upon entering the state,” Williams added. “Our test had to be done through Quest, and we had to upload them onto a Hawaiian government system. It was this whole elaborate, logistical process that they had set up, which we don’t have. LSU doesn’t have that. We thought about that case because others have done it, but we don’t have a great logistical answer if it ever comes down.”

UNM has implemented mobile ticketing, cashless parking and a clear bag policy for home games to help provide safety for attendees and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

UNM won’t lower the capacity maximum for next week’s game, as New Mexico United, which plays its home matches at Isotopes Park, recently did, Williams said.

“We feel we don’t have to do that because we have a very large stadium,” Williams said of University Stadium, which has a capacity of 39,224. “The capacity for the first game will kind of naturally allow for social distancing.”

There have been approximately 9,500 tickets (season and single-game) sold for the opener next week, Williams said, describing sales as “slow.”

He said the possibility of having proof of vaccination requirements has factored into the slow ticket sales.

“I think there is a group of people waiting to see what happens,” he said. “They also know that historically they’ve been able to get into games buying their tickets at the last minute. You put those things together and I realize why we have slow ticket sales right now for the first game.”

Attendance is expected to climb much higher for UNM’s second game against New Mexico State on Sept. 11 at University Stadium.

The Wild West nature of the upcoming, pandemic-challenged season can be illustrated in part by 160 miles of Texas highway that connects the trendy college city of Austin with the bustling metropolis of Houston.

At one end lies the University of Texas, where more than 100,000 fans will pack Darrell K. Royal—Texas Memorial Stadium to cheer the Longhorns this fall. Many, along with some players and coaches, are likely to be unvaccinated after Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting vaccine requirements for any organization that receives state funding.

At the other of that highway is Rice University, where 40,000-plus hope to see their Owls turn things around this fall. And because it is a private research university, Abbott’s executive order does not apply, and vaccine requirements put in place by the school mean just about everybody that shows up will get in only if they have received their COVID-19 shots.

That’s just two of the 130 schools – New Mexico is another – that will be playing this fall in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Each will have vaccination plans shaped by governors and legislatures, medical officials and university leaders, and they are likely to change from week to week. Politics and policy are certain to collide as red states and blue states, often with schools playing in the very same conference, attempt to make it through an entire season without an outbreak. “Inevitably,” Texas coach Steve Sarkisian acknowledged, “we’re all just trying to protect one another.”

There are more than 2,500 schools across the country with varying COVID-19 mitigation policies, according to the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, which has been tracking higher education responses to the pandemic. Nearly a quarter of them – hundreds of schools such as Michigan and Notre Dame – required students arriving this fall to be vaccinated, a number certain to increase after the FDA’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine.

UNM students – any who access campus facilities, housing, programs, services and activities in person – must be fully vaccinated for COVID-19, subject to limited exemptions, before Sept. 30. By that same date, New Mexico State requires its students to provide proof of vaccination or proof of a weekly negative COVID test.

The NCAA doesn’t require its 1,100 member schools – with some 450,000 athletes in dozens of sports – to follow a one-size-fits-all COVID-19 policy. Instead, the beleaguered governing body issued a set of recommendations for testing, quarantining and isolation that were designed to fit within a framework of widely varying state mandates.

Texas and New Hampshire are among those that barred requiring the vaccine; Hawaii demands athletes be vaccinated.

Not surprisingly, there have been legal challenges. In one, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett denied an emergency application to bar Indiana University from requiring faculty, staff and students be vaccinated against COVID-19 – a ruling that suggests athletes and students that challenge other vaccine requirements would likely fail.

There are exemptions, of course, but getting approval isn’t as easy as it might seem.

Duke requires students who obtain an exemption to be subject to daily symptom monitoring, regular testing, masking while indoors and other protocols. Hofstra requires students requesting medical or religious exemptions to have a document signed by a physician or religious leader that must then be reviewed by a university panel.

Often, students that decline the vaccine are forced to pay for regular testing out of their own pockets. All of which raises serious ethical considerations, too.

More than 100 games were canceled or postponed in major college football last season, even though most schools played truncated or conference-only schedules. Some were often made up with just a few days’ notice, others bounced around the schedule like a ping-pong ball. Coaches were often left wondering who they would play – not to mention when or if at all – as they dealt with the ebb and flow of outbreaks across the country.

At least that won’t be a problem this season. Every Power Five conference has indicated any team unable to play due to COVID-19 issues will be forced to forfeit their game. The SEC has even considered financial penalties for teams that have issues, pointing out that a massive amount of television money would be jeopardized by canceled games.

“Frankly, anyone not getting vaccinated is taking unnecessary and unwarranted risks,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “It’s shortsighted to not get vaccinated.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report by the Journal’s Steve Virgen.


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