Superintendent of Hobbs Municipal Schools TJ Parks said the bond between communities in southeast New Mexico might prove the cure to the long, drawn out months battling COVID-19.
The first case of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was identified in New Mexico in March 2019, prompting Parks, Carlsbad Municipal Schools (CMS) Superintendent Dr. Gerry Washburn and Artesia Public Schools (APS) Superintendent John Ross Null to deepen communication to work on behalf of their respective cities.
“Our communities have an awful lot in common. We have much more in common than we would from somebody in northern New Mexico. We share ideas, concerns and I think we’ve had to come together because we’re kind of all alone out here and I think without each other it would be more difficult to survive what we’ve gone through,” Parks said.
It was that spirit of cooperation that prompted Hobbs to allow the use of Watson Memorial Stadium for the annual Carlsbad Cavemen and Artesia Bulldogs rivalry football game on March 5.
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Though the game was scheduled to be played in Carlsbad, a last minute request to the neighbor just over the Eddy/Lea County line meant fans could attend the long awaited game.
Carlsbad Municipal Schools, located in Eddy County, was bared from allowing fans to attend under restrictions from the the State of New Mexico Department of Health emergency health orders which categorize the county as “red” and regulations by the state Public Education Department.
But in the Hobbs school district, only an hour’s drive and located in a “yellow” county, sports venues can seat 25 percent of maximum capacity of any outdoor space. Three thousand fans were permitted at Friday’s game.
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Artesia and Carlsbad were allotted 1,500 tickets. Washburn said 750 tickets were issued in Artesia and Carlsbad. Null estimated the attendance ranged from 1,600 to 1,800.
“That’s just a rough estimate. Although we had a good crowd there we didn’t come close to violating the occupancy standards or anything like that,” he said.
Washburn said Carlsbad restricted admittance to workers and ticket holders.
“It was a nice crowd. Not a typical Eddy County War crowd, but a good crowd considering the last minute nature of everything,” Washburn said.
Judy Robinson, New Mexico Public Health Education Department (PED) spokesperson, said the agency did allow the change of venue after conferring with legal council which ruled the change would not violate public health orders.
The Current-Argus asked Robinson if the decision might set a precedent for other counties who wish for a return to normal but who are still restricted under State mandate. Eddy is one of four counties in New Mexico whose health risk designation remains red. The others are Otero, Dona Ana and McKinley counties.
Robinson said the decision would be reviewed in advance of the next Public Health Order update scheduled for Wednesday, March 10 which Carlsbad leaders tentatively anticipate to result in Eddy County being downgraded to “yellow.”
Carlsbad and Artesia leaders expressed no concern that work done over the last few months to decrease the number of daily cases of the virus would be undone by the travel and seating of a large number of fans, or that it would negatively impact the progress made in Lea County to eradicate the virus.
Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway said he was not concerned about a spike in COVID-19 cases post-game.
“The best way to avoid a spike is for people to continue to wear masks and maintain social distancing as more and more vaccines are available to Eddy County,” he said.
Carlsbad announced vaccination clinics held every Monday at the Walter Gerrells Performing Arts Center, even as New Mexico expanded its rollout of the vaccine to include K-9 educators and staff beginning March 8. Over 17,000 doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine were shipped to New Mexico at the beginning of the month.
The New Mexico Department of Health (DOH) reported seven new COVID-19 cases in Eddy County on Sunday and 10 on Saturday.
As of Sunday, DOH noted 17.5 percent of Eddy County’s population was partially vaccinated and 6.6 percent were fully vaccinated and 24.7 percent were registered.
A quick helping hand
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Parks said moving the game did not require a lot of logistics; Hobbs provided the facilities and support staff.
“We were not allowed to open up concession stands. We just made sure the fields were ready and Artesia and Carlsbad literally provided all the game help (and) contacting the officials. It was a joint effort,” he said.
Washburn said CMS personnel were incentivized to execute the quick change of plans for Friday’s game.
“Logistically once we knew that we could play in Hobbs our athletic staff contacted all of the adults that make our games possible. Everyone was very motivated to make the game happen,” Washburn said.
“So it was a lift to make the live stream possible and people had to travel that were planning on being in Carlsbad, but everyone wanted this to happen so they made the sacrifices necessary for it to happen.”
Null said he did contemplate last minute objections to the new location would mean cancelling the game.
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“Up until kick off I can’t help but say there was some uncertainty as to whether or not it was all going to come together. Once the game started and just watching the kids compete and just have a great time with their teammates and having some fans in the stands was just a great event to a part of and it was much needed,” he said.
Besides Friday night’s football game, Hobbs hosted soccer matches involving Carlsbad and Artesia. Washburn and Null couldn’t recall another time when another city or county hosted sporting events contested by out-of-town schools other than playoff games.
“I know we’ve gone to different places for volleyball, maybe if there’s a tie breaker game or something like that. There’s been some circumstances but not certainly for the reasons that things were moved on Friday and Saturday and it is very important to point out that for all of us involved to not just do this for our football programs and for the parents and guardians and grandparents but also for the soccer programs as well,” Null said.
Washburn doesn’t anticipate anymore Carlsbad High sporting events moving to Lea County.
“Our hope is that everyone will be in yellow or green so such games won’t be necessary. We will have a couple of games played this week before the next designation comes out. Those unfortunately will be played without fans. Currently, we do not anticipate fans being allowed at indoor events until a school is in the green or turquoise designation,” he said.
Janway said CMS and APS’s decision to move the game was a good decision for the community.
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“It is certainly our hope that having games in Hobbs isn’t a full-time solution. Our hope is that Eddy County will go yellow on Wednesday so we don’t have to consider this alternative, but we are very thankful to Hobbs Municipal Schools for helping us out with these past few games,” he said.
Parks said if conditions don’t change in Eddy County, then Hobbs would welcome more outdoor sporting events.
“I think that’s going to depend on the views from the governor (Michelle Lujan Grisham) at this point in time,” he said.
Mike Smith can be reached at 575-628-5546 or by email at [email protected] or @ArgusMichae on Twitter.