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GOP senators slam State Fair vaccine mandate

State Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, of Senate District 32, speaks to a crowd at the Eastern New Mexico State Fairgrounds on Sept. 17 during the New Mexico Junior Livestock Expo. (Alex Ross Photo)

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

A group of Republican state senators Friday excoriated Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for imposing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate on attendees of the New Mexico State Fair in Albuquerque.

In response to the mandate, on Aug. 26 a group of volunteers announced that an alternative New Mexico Youth Livestock Expo would take place Sept. 14 to 17 at the Eastern New Mexico State Fairgrounds.

State Sens. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell; Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte; and Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, made an appearance on the last day of the New Mexico Youth Livestock Expo.

While speaking before a crowd, Pirtle, a local farmer and a steadfast critic of the state’s public health orders, accused Lujan Grisham of imposing the mandate as a way to deprive rural youth of showing their animals at the annual State Fair, though he did not say why he thought she would do so.

“She did it intentionally because she knew that our rural ag kids, our kiddos who grew those animals, come from rural parts of the state,” he said.

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“The governor is continuing to attack our kids, our way of life, continuing to attack our freedoms — our freedom of choice in rural New Mexico,” Pirtle continued.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, included the vaccine mandate in an Aug. 17 public health order. The order stated that any individual age 12 or older without a medical or religious exemption must show proof of being fully vaccinated before being able to enter the fairgrounds during the State Fair. Those who did get an exemption had to show proof of testing negative for COVID-19 48 hours before entering the fairgrounds.

Eventually the State Fair livestock show and sale was canceled, a day before the Fair was set to begin.

Diamond said the State Fair traditionally provides 4-H and FFA youth from around the state a chance to showcase and sell the animals they worked hard to raise throughout the year.

“The governor’s mandate up in Albuquerque sent a very direct message to rural New Mexico’s children that they are not welcome at the New Mexico State Fair,” Diamond said. She added that most of the activities there would have been outside and that the fair was the only event in the state where the governor required attendees to get vaccinated.

The mandate came as states throughout the nation are experiencing a surge in cases of COVID-19 caused by the highly contagious delta variant, with hospitals in some states, including New Mexico, grappling with the strain the increased COVID-19 cases placed on the healthcare system.

In an email Friday, Tripp Stelnicki, communications director for Lujan Grisham, denied the accusations by Pirtle, calling them “empty ranting and divisive raving.”

He also accused Pirtle of working to undermine Lujan Grisham and the state’s public health policies and vaccine efforts, something he said has “contributed to the ongoing strains of the pandemic throughout our state, including hospitals at or over capacity with unvaccinated individuals, including unnecessary illness and death.”

“His criticism is predictable and pathetic,” Stelnicki said. He also dismissed claims by Pirtle that exhibitors did not have adequate time to get both doses of the vaccine before the fair. Stelnicki said that since May or June, the vaccine has been widely available throughout New Mexico.

“To suggest New Mexicans had only a few weeks to obtain their vaccinations before the fair is to ignore this simple fact — and it is the kind of thing someone would say if they were interested in politicizing the pandemic, rather than helping New Mexicans combat it and defeat it and resume their normal lives in safety and prosperity. This is a tired and worthless argument from a talentless politician who is interested only in dividing New Mexicans and spewing false information for his own political gain,” he said.

Republicans used the expo in Roswell as a chance to rally their base ahead of next year’s elections. Democrats hold a 27 to 15 majority in the senate and a 45 to 24 majority in the House. Republicans are making unseating Lujan Grisham a top priority and opposition to COVID-19 restrictions is expected to be a central issue.

“We will fight tooth and nail, day and night to ensure these kids have somewhere to go, basketball games to go play in, have school to go to and after-school programs that they can get involved with because that is important,” Pirtle said.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or breakingnews@rdrnews.com.

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