Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Las Cruces mayor calls for packing aggie game and bringing ‘abuela’ during COVID surge

LAS CRUCES — As New Mexico continues to weather the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima has been criticized for his “toneless” endorsement of “packing” the Pan American Center with fans this weekend when the state of New Mexico takes on the Grand Canyon in men’s basketball.

In weekend posts on Twitter and Facebook, the mayor encouraged as many residents as possible to cheer on the basketball team as they tap at Pan Am this Saturday at 7 p.m

“Okay Aggie Nation,” Miyagishima wrote, “we need everyone, including your grandma (abuela) to come out and support the Aggies next Saturday.”

The state is seeing the highest daily numbers of COVID-19 cases and a shortage of hospital beds for people ending up with the worst infections. State health officials believe the spread rush is due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

In the past two weeks, Doña Ana County had a 31.6 percent positivity rate for COVID-19 tests.

Some fans will wear masks when the New Mexico State Aggies take on the UTEP Miners on Saturday, November 13, 2021 at the Pan American Center in Las Cruces.

The mayoral posts were accompanied by an ad from NMSU Athletics urging fans to “pack the Pan Am” on game day. The game will be announced as a “white-out game,” meaning fans will be encouraged to wear white shirts and clothing, and the first 1,000 fans of the game will receive a free white shirt.

The response from some community members was outspoken.

“We’re never getting out of this pandemic,” Aimee Ryan tweeted. “I’m sure healthcare workers will appreciate that,” tweeted another sarcastically. “Wow. The Aggies want to kill my grandma?” asked another mockingly.

Some fans will wear masks when the NMSU Aggies take on the UC Irvine Anteaters on Tuesday, November 9, 2021 at the Pan American Center in Las Cruces.

According to data from the state Department of Health and Human Services as of Jan. 24, 40 percent of those hospitalized with COVID-19 were over the age of 65, but they have the highest per capita hospitalization rate in the state.

Still, the state has calculated that the fatality rate among the unvaccinated is much higher than among those with a first line of COVID-19 vaccine, which is even higher than among those who received a booster dose.

“When I see things like this being advertised, even though I know they don’t enforce masks,” Michelle Provencio said, referring to images she’d seen of large crowds at Aggie basketball games, despite the state’s mask mandate. “It just frustrates me that everyone wants everything open but also doesn’t want to follow any protocols to make sure things get opened safely.”

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While NMSU athletic director Mario Moccia clarified that his department is merely a tenant of the arena, he said the university has discussed the need to increase enforcement of mask wearing while people are seated. A big hurdle, Moccia said, is people taking their masks off while eating popcorn or sipping a soda or beer and not putting them back on.

“Everyone struggles with enforcement,” said NMSU COVID-19 project manager Jon Webster, who said he attends every pandemic protocol meeting before every game to discuss strategies to improve compliance. “You can be anywhere in our community including grocery stores and anywhere and you see a lot of people without masks.”

Webster said the arena is enforcing masks to the best of its ability. Security will not allow entry to anyone without a mask on the door, and public service announcements will be played during each game encouraging masking.

“And today, to our knowledge or to the knowledge of the New Mexico Department of Health, we have not traced any contact to an outbreak based on an event at the Pan American Center,” Webster said.

“It’s problematic for a manager”

The mayor declined to be interviewed about his comments, only telling The Sun News he encourages Aggie fans to get vaccinated, get boosted and wear a mask in public.

“While I understand the financial implications of attracting crowds to Aggie games,” Carol Carruthers Owensby told The Sun News via text message, “I feel like encouraging people to bring their grandmother to the game is numb, as we are still enduring a pandemic in which we once struggled to protect the elderly and other vulnerable populations.”

Students sit in the stands as the New Mexico State Aggies take on the Tarleton State Texans on Thursday, January 13, 2022 at the Pan American Center in Las Cruces.

“[The mayor]didn’t say much about it: ‘I understand what you’re going through. I understand that you have to go to work and school and stay healthy and it’s really hard.’ I haven’t heard a single sympathy from him publicly,” said Sarah Silva, a Las Cruces resident.

Silva said as someone who has immunocompromised family members in their household who are at increased risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19, the mayor’s call felt exclusive.

“It just felt like, oh, we could rally around our people, but the definition of ‘our people’ has changed,” Silva said. “Does that include my family? Because right now it feels like all people with disabilities, all people with compromised immune systems, are not being considered in these decisions.”

Renée Beltran, who claims to have lived in Las Cruces for almost three decades, also found the mayor’s statements “deaf”.

“He didn’t recognize the circumstances we live in and I think that’s problematic for a leader,” Beltran said.

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Beltran said she has an immunocompromised child at home that has prevented her from going to basketball games. She said she was also not satisfied with the mayor’s comments to Sun News.

“In my opinion, that’s too little, too late,” Beltran said. “Because how do we know that the people who heard the one message are going to hear the qualifier? I don’t feel like he was consistent enough in that message.”

Michael McDevitt is a city and county government reporter for Sun News. He can be reached at 575-202-3205, [email protected], or @MikeMcDTweets on Twitter.

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