UNM announces vaccine requirement for events at the Pit - Albuquerque Journal

UNM announces vaccine requirement for events at the Pit

The crowd watches the first Lobo men’s basketball game of the season under new head coach Richard Pitino earlier this year against New Mexico Highlands. The University of New Mexico is expected to formally announce a vaccine requirement for fans entering the Pit for men’s and women’s basketball games to go into effect after the Christmas break. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Want to go give the Lobos a little boost in the Pit?

Starting next week, you’ll need to show you’ve been vaccinated – or at least provide proof you’ve tested negative for COVID-19 – to get in the door and cheer on the University of New Mexico men’s and women’s basketball teams.

Citing “increased health risks posed by surging COVID-19 numbers and the emerging threat of the Omicron variant,” UNM on Monday formally announced a vaccine requirement for fans entering the Pit for games, beginning with each team’s Mountain West Conference opener in the arena on Dec. 28.

The new policy, which will include the opportunity for unvaccinated fans to show a recent negative COVID test, will not apply to anyone under 12 or be in place for Tuesday night’s Lobo men’s basketball game against Norfolk State.

The plan, for now, is to have the policy in place through the end of January, when it will be reevaluated.

On-site, free testing will be made available before each game.

UNM Vice President for Athletics Eddie Nuñez said discussions on the matter have been ongoing and the decision came after consultation with team doctors, the president’s leadership team, UNM Hospital leadership and others in New Mexico and across the country.

That is largely the same group that has crafted COVID-safe protocols over the past year and a half for the university that allowed for Lobo sports to be played in a limited fashion in the 2020-21 academic year and this year. It is also the same group that over the summer decided against implementing a vaccination requirement for sporting events for the current school year.

“As we’ve learned,” Nuñez said, “and one of the things that we continue to battle here is things change. And we have to pivot and adapt when things happen. And this is one of those times.”

He asked for fan and community “understanding and patience as the new requirements are implemented.”

UNM has said all “tier 1” individuals for Lobo men’s and women’s basketball teams – including the players and those with regular, prolonged and direct contact with the players and coaching staff – have all been vaccinated since before the season began.

Season ticket holders or those who have already purchased tickets to future games can contact UNM if they would like a refund.

“We’re going to work with them on a case-by-case basis,” Nuñez said.

He added that the Pit gameday staff is working with UNM’s Navy ROTC, which helped with verification of vaccination status at the New Mexico State Fair.

The move drew praise from the Governor’s Office.

“It’s the right thing to do for Lobo fans and for the New Mexico community as a whole,” spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said in an email. “The governor has been encouraging numerous entities to employ vaccination policies for some time now, and she greatly appreciates UNM taking this action.”

The details

UNM has set up a website with several frequently asked questions about the policy at GoLobos.com/Safe.

Among the bullet points most fans need to know:

— There are three ways fans can attend a game in the Pit: Proof of vaccination (two shots for Pfizer or Moderna or one shot of Johnson & Johnson) with the second shot occurring at least two weeks prior to the game; proof of a negative PCR test within 72 hours prior to the game or an antigen test 24 hours prior to the game; or be under the age of 12.

— Fans can bring their physical vaccination card or have a picture of it on their mobile phone.

— UNM partnered with Southwest Labs for on-site, free testing at all games for those who need a COVID test to enter. Testing will be in the Stadium East parking lot beginning two hours before game time.

— The arena’s mask policy remains in effect, requiring fans to be masked at all times in the arena other than when eating or drinking.

— The doors now open 90 minutes ahead of game time instead of 60 minutes.

Nuñez said some logistics are still being ironed out, and acknowledged there are unbudgeted financial concerns about the new policy – both in resources needed to implement it and in the impact it may have on ticket sales in an arena that is already headed toward its lowest average home attendance this season since the Pit opened in 1966.

“The financial component of this is very important, but it’s not our driving factor. And it never will be,” Nuñez said.

COVID in NM

New Mexico’s COVID-19 infection and test positivity rates have shown signs of dropping over the last two weeks, even as state health officials brace for a new phase of the pandemic in the form of the increasingly prevalent omicron variant.

After several weeks of rising COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations due to the highly contagious delta variant, New Mexico last week saw a decrease in the number of new confirmed cases over a weeklong period.

There were also 539 people hospitalized around New Mexico due to COVID-19 as of Monday – down from 610 individuals hospitalized a week earlier.

As of Monday, roughly 31.8% of New Mexicans ages 18 and older had gotten a booster dose of the vaccine, according to state Department of Health data. In all, 88% of adults statewide have received at least one vaccine dose, while 75.4% had completed their initial vaccine series.

Meanwhile, the recent spread of COVID-19 variants has led to an increase of fully vaccinated New Mexicans testing positive for COVID-19. However, unvaccinated individuals still make up the majority of those contracting the virus and of those who are hospitalized because of it.

During a four-week period that ended Dec. 13, unvaccinated people made up 72% of new cases recorded statewide and 81.2% of those hospitalized. In addition, of the 141 deaths attributed to COVID-19 during that time period, 115 were unvaccinated – or 81.6% – and 18.4% were fully vaccinated.

Peer review

UNM is the sixth university in the 11-member Mountain West to impose a vaccine requirement of some sort in place for their arenas, including the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where the Mountain West Tournament is held every March.

The league told the Journal last week a decision related to the vaccine mandate at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, and if it will affect hosting the conference tournament has not been made.

New Mexico State University, where the Aggies basketball teams also compete at the NCAA’s Division I level in the Western Athletic Conference, have not gone the route of vaccination requirements for the Pan American Center.

“There have been no decisions from New Mexico State at this time. We continue to monitor the situation, but I’m sure this will continue to be a point of discussion moving forward,” said NMSU Athletic Director Mario Moccia.

The 13-member WAC currently has vaccination requirements for arenas at just two schools: Seattle University and Cal Baptist in Riverside, California.

Journal Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Boyd contributed to this article.

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