Bad news awaited brother and sister JD and Abby Kersey when they got home from school Tuesday afternoon.
Just an hour earlier, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that anyone eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine must show proof of being fully vaccinated to attend the New Mexico State Fair, where the middle school students from Magdalena planned to show steers, lambs and pigs — animals they’ve been raising for months.
JD, who is 12 and eligible for a vaccine, isn’t vaccinated, and even if he got his first dose this week, he would be too late to meet the governor’s mandate.
“I just wish that she would have gotten some feedback from rural New Mexico on the impacts,” Kayla Kersey, the children’s mother, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I know that there’s the carnival and the rides and all of that, but the junior livestock group of people would have helped figure out a way to do this in a safe manner without having to make these mandates.”
The vaccine requirement for young exhibitors, announced three weeks before the start of the state fair, is generating harsh criticism against the governor.
The New Mexico Cattle Growers Association and a couple of Republican senators are urging Lujan Grisham to reconsider the vaccine requirement for youth, saying it will prevent scores of students from showing their animals or participating in other exhibits at the state fair.
“First and foremost, we do understand the governor’s desire to protect New Mexicans and especially those under 12 against the COVID-19 infection,” said Shelleen Smith, the association’s executive director. “But we also feel that consideration has to be given for exhibitors. They cannot meet the requirements due to this short notice.”
Smith said there are youth who have put a year’s worth of work into their livestock projects and won’t be able to afford to do a project next year if they can’t sell their livestock this year.
“We just have concern for our kids,” she said. “They’ve worked so hard for the past year.”
Sens. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, and Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, want the governor to lift the vaccine requirement at the state fair for all youth, not just exhibitors.
“While we understand the pressures you and other state officials are experiencing, we feel this decision was particularly careless and inconsiderate of the children and parents of our state,” Diamond and Pirtle wrote in a joint letter to the governor. “No family should be faced with the dilemma of receiving an experimental vaccine or having their hard work be completely lost.”
In an interview, Diamond called the vaccine requirement for youth “quite an overreach and quite a surprise.”
“We are not opposed to social-distancing requirements,” Diamond said. “I think we can spread out. I think our exhibitors have agreed that they would abide by mask mandates. It’s when the governor came in and mandated the vaccine for some of our younger exhibitors that we feel that it crossed the line. Keep in mind, that’s not even a requirement to attend public school at this time.”
Diamond said the governor’s mandate seems like a “shotgun approach” that targets young people primarily from rural parts of the state.
“I grew up in 4-H and FFA [Future Farmers of America], and I personally showed at the New Mexico State Fair,” said Diamond, who showed pigs and dairy heifers in her youth. “Preparing for that livestock show, preparing for the travel, is all part of the experience. … It’s something that you prepare for and you work hard, and so even the experience is a reward in itself.”
Asked about the concerns Diamond and others are expressing about unvaccinated youth being unable to exhibit at the state fair, Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor’s press secretary, wrote in an email that the coronavirus pandemic is a life-or-death situation.
“Concerns are warranted when New Mexico hospitals are rapidly approaching crisis standards of care because of unvaccinated New Mexicans spreading a highly infectious and incredibly dangerous virus despite the widespread availability and efficacy of vaccines,” she wrote, referring to the rationing of health care when hospitals are overwhelmed.
“Hundreds of New Mexicans are very seriously ill, and hundreds and thousands more will become very seriously ill, if the virus has the opportunity to continue to spread among unvaccinated populations, particularly at large events,” she added. “This large event is under the state’s authority. Vaccines are required, because anything less is irresponsible and will lead to sickness and potentially death, needless death, and that’s the end of the story.”
Tricia Elbrock, who was a 4-H leader for 40 years, said the vaccine requirement will cost an untold number of young exhibitors the opportunity to attend the state fair. She said many youth who show their animals at the state fair live in sparsely populated areas and probably aren’t vaccinated.
“They spend beaucoup of money on these animals all year long, and then she slaps them with this?” she said angrily. “They’ve already paid for their premiums. They already paid their entry fees. So, are they going to get reimbursed for that? She better rethink it.”
Kayla Kersey, whose children are unlikely to show their livestock at the state fair because of the vaccine requirement, said the biggest problem with the governor’s mandate is the short notice. Her daughter, who is 11, is not required to be fully vaccinated under the governor’s mandate.
“There’s no time to get him fully vaccinated. That’s frustrating,” she said. “If they would have told us months ago, we would have been able to have some time to really make a proper decision about something that I do think is not just something you should do on a whim.”
Kersey said she wished the governor could’ve seen the devastation on her children’s faces when she and her husband, Cody, delivered the bad news.
“They were just heartbroken,” she said. “Completely devastated. … This is a family project, and our whole family was just devastated last night.”
Another parent, Talisha Valdez, said she has two daughters who also planned to show lambs and pigs at the state fair. While one of the girls is 11, the other is 12 and not yet vaccinated, “nor do I want to get her vaccinated,” she said, adding that she and her husband aren’t vaccinated, either.
Valdez said she and her family have invested a lot of hours and money to prepare their animals for the state fair.
“For [the governor] to mandate this so close [to the state fair], a lot of kids can’t be vaccinated in that time period,” she said. “It’s going to affect a lot of families and a lot of money and the agricultural industry as a whole.”
Valdez said she still hasn’t told her daughters they probably won’t be able to attend the state fair this year because she’s holding out hope the governor will reconsider her decision.
“Those long hours that we’ve put in, for what? Now we’re just going to have to basically eat them, which we can do, but that’s not the whole point of why they worked all this summer,” she said. “It’s to go show off and be competitive and get that spirit back in these kids. They need this. They need something normal, and it keeps getting taken away from them.”