About 200 miles southeast, hundreds of children instead gathered at a fairground with no rides and few spectators to show more than a thousand cows, pigs, sheep and goats in open-sided barns. It was an alternative livestock show quickly thrown together after families decided to boycott the state fair over a requirement that everyone over age 12 show proof of coronavirus vaccination, test or exemption to enter.
New Mexico’s state fair this year was a triumph compared to the previous — when it was staged virtually — but was also emblematic of the latest stage of a pandemic still fomenting division months after the release of vaccines that were supposed to end it. As more employers and businesses require workers and patrons to be vaccinated, resistance among a minority of Americans runs deep — even if it costs them jobs or experiences.
The battle over vaccine mandates can be especially fraught at public places and large events, where ticket-takers and greeters have been thrust into the role of front-line enforcers of what amount to vaccine passports, one of the pandemic’s most controversial ideas.
Organizers of some events are choosing to require vaccination amid a delta variant-fueled surge that is killing an average of 2,000 Americans a day. In many cases, things go smoothly. The Utah Symphony and Opera opened its season last week with no capacity limits but with a vaccine mandate as “the next step we need to take to make sure we’re serving our audience,” chief executive Steve Brosvik said. Only about 4 percent of ticket holders canceled because of the mandate, the company said.
In New York, where city regulations require restaurant patrons to show proof of vaccination, owners and advocates say that while they agree with the measure, it places an additional burden on an industry already battered by the pandemic and struggling to recover. Last week, an altercation over vaccination cards between a hostess and guests at a popular restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side resulted in the arrest of three women from Texas.
“In Times Square, we get an awful lot of tourists,” many of whom are unaware of the mandate and without vaccine cards, said Jeremy Merrin, founder of Havana Central Restaurant and Rum Bar, which recently saw a 20 percent drop in sales. “It should be a universal mandate so that everyone knows every time they go out in New York City, they have to wear a mask and they have to be vaccinated.”
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) announced the mandate for the state fair three weeks before its opening day amid a delta-driven surge in hospitalizations.
Although the reliably blue state has one of the nation’s highest vaccination rates, many of the youths who show livestock at the fair come from rural areas where rates are lower. When the state fair surveyed their families after the mandate was announced, the majority said they would not attend. New Mexico Republicans and the state cattle growers’ association called on the governor to rescind the mandate, saying it gave too little time for the unvaccinated to get shots, and one parent sued. A federal judge rejected the lawsuit.
“Vaccines have been available to New Mexicans at large since at least May,” Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Lujan Grisham, said in an email. “To suppose that there was not ‘enough time’ — when that is not true — is to grant undue deference to those who for months have been refusing safe and effective vaccines and who are consequently prolonging this pandemic and endangering the lives and livelihoods of everyone in our state.”
The mandate, meanwhile, scrambled fair planning, general manager Dan Mourning said. The fair hired a consultant to train screeners to check vaccination cards and enlisted Navy ROTC members to help. It also contacted hundreds of vendors to ensure they were eligible to participate in the fair, with some dropping out at the news of the mandate.
With about a week to go, the fair canceled the livestock show and offered refunds to 425 people, ages 9 to 18, who had signed up to exhibit.
“We knew immediately that there were people that were not going to be making our party this year,” said Mourning, adding that his favorite part of the fair was hosting 4-H and the National FFA Organization (Future Farmers of America) participants. Though dismayed, he said he agreed with the governor that vaccination was crucial for ending the pandemic and protecting younger children at a massive event where some of it — including much of the livestock show — is indoors.
“For some people, it’s not enough. For some people, it’s too much,” Mourning said, sitting in a beer garden where bartenders offered Moscow mules infused with red Hatch chiles, as well as state fair-themed lager. “We’re focused on the majority of people, and those are the ones that are coming.”
Vaccine card, please
Across the fairgrounds at Gate 8, a trio of workers in blue polo shirts stood under a white tent that served as fairgoers’ first stop on their way into the carnival. A sign above them read “VAX DOC CHECK” in red letters flanked by cartoon syringes.
“Vaccine card? Thank you very much!” Arthur Hassall, a former fairgrounds human resources manager who had been enlisted to screen, said cheerily to person after person who flowed in from the sun-beaten parking lot. At least half wore masks, though they were not required outdoors.
Most were prepared, deftly flashing vaccination cards pulled from pockets and purses and Ziploc bags. One woman, whose card showed only her first shot, grumpily went home to retrieve evidence of her second. Hassall patiently coached a young woman wearing cat ears through finding her vaccination record through a state website on her phone.
No personal identification was required. Exemptions for religious, medical or disability reasons were accepted along with a recent negative coronavirus test result. One man was waved in after flashing a letter with a pastor’s name on it. Screeners logged about 30 exemptions a day for the first four days of the fair, said Hubert Allen, an Albuquerque biostatistician who provided screening training to 59 fair employees.
Allen said he warned the screeners that “you’re going to find that a family comes and has a bearded 11-year-old boy” — cheats, in other words. His counsel: Let them in.
“The governor basically said, ‘We’re going to have faith in our citizens.’ The real point is, if over 90 percent are doing the right thing, this is the safest place in town,” Allen said.
Not that it was all smooth sailing.
“We’ve had people cuss at us. Tell us to go F-ourselves. That it’s against their rights for us to be doing this,” said screener Sterling Utter, who in previous years had run the fair’s midway. “But I have six kids, all prematurely born, with weak immune systems. I’m for it. I want the safety.”
Inside the fair, a smaller-than-normal crowd rode the carousel, toured art exhibits and listened to live music amid the smoky-sweet aroma of sizzling meat and cotton candy. Several fairgoers said they were comforted knowing others there were vaccinated.
Desire Gabaldon and Pedro Baca, Albuquerque residents who said they had been coming to the state fair since they were kids, wandered with their three daughters into the livestock barn — typically Galbadon’s favorite part of the event. They cooed at the lone pig, which eagerly accepted their scratches. But this year, Gabaldon noted, the cattle show she loved watching wasn’t there.
Even so, the couple said, they were delighted with the vaccine mandate. Gabaldon, 38, said she couldn’t wait for her younger girls, ages 7 and 8, to be eligible for the shot.
Baca said vaccine resistance was puzzling from a community that raises livestock. “I don’t get it,” said Baca, 36, a mechanic. “Don’t the farmers vaccinate their animals?”
An alternate livestock show
They do, Michael Bennett said the next day, Sept. 16, at the fairgrounds in Roswell, where the New Mexico Youth Livestock Expo had sprung up to take the place of the state fair show. Bennett, a rancher, was there with his 16-year-old daughter, Callie, who was showing a 1,335-pound steer named Jimmy in hopes of winning a belt buckle, a banner and a chance to sell the bovine.
Bennett said he spends as much as $30,000 a year on vaccines for his cattle, giving him special insight into the value of immunization. He said he and his whole family have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, a disease he said he knew was dangerous.
But the fair’s rules on vaccination did not sit well with him. The mandate — coming just weeks before the fair and one of its highlights, the youth livestock circuit — was crushing for unvaccinated kids who spent hours a day for as long as a year raising their animals, he said. Like some others at the expo, Bennett said his family did not want to attend if everyone could not go.
“I don’t know what they were trying to accomplish there,” Bennett said. “But it sure didn’t look good to rural New Mexico.”
Around him, adolescents and teens blow-dried freshly bathed steers, making their coats fluffy and glossy for the show. Some lounged in camp chairs near animals awaiting their turn in the ring. There was no entrance to speak of and no face masks in sight.
But there was little vocal antipathy toward vaccination — only toward the mandate.
“We are vaccinated, and we got punished for no reason,” said Ty Bays, a mineworker and rancher from Silver City, whose son was also exhibiting a steer. “I mean, if you want to run the risk and not get the vaccine, that’s your choice to do.”
James Duffy, a Roswell sheep rancher who helped organize the expo, said the Roswell fairground was chosen in part because of its open-sided barns. Some families who may have been willing to get vaccinated to enter the fair didn’t have time, he said, and others did not want the shot. The expo offered a chance for all kids to show in a statewide event, he said.
“It’s kind of the culmination of their work for the whole year, to give them a chance to exhibit them and see how they do,” he said.
Outside, Tye Martinez, 17, paused from grooming his steers, Diesel and Bullet, to recount the thrill of state fairs in the past, where participants paraded their bovine down a street lined with young children marveling at the enormous animals.
“It gets your adrenaline going, all the people watching you,” he said. “You got a lot of eyes on you when you show them all your hard work.”
The cancellation, Martinez said, “kind of broke my heart, because I’m going on my senior year, and I can’t go back to the state fair to show.” This year, he was hoping to take his senior portraits at the fair.
Tye’s mom, Kandy Martinez, said she was “strongly against” vaccination. Flu shots aren’t mandated, she said, and the jail where she works does not require vaccination for other illnesses that circulate in congregate settings.
“There’s not enough information, and there’s so many different choices out there. I mean, which one are they mandating we get?” she asked of the vaccines, which were formulated based on decades of research and studied in tens of thousands of people.
Later, as the beef cattle competition came to an end in the dusty show ring, “The Final Countdown” by Europe played over loudspeakers. The judge, an agriculture professor brought in from Illinois, paused before announcing the winner.
“I don’t know what unfolded in the last few weeks, but I know this wasn’t the original plan,” he said. “You guys are fortunate that there was a group of people that said, ‘No way, we’re not going to throw in the towel. These kids are going to show.’ ”
Spectators in wooden bleachers burst into applause.
In Albuquerque, Mourning did not disagree. He said he felt sorry that kids were caught up in something that has become so political. The fair canceled its livestock show, he said, so they would not be forced to choose between events.
“The young men and women that have worked so hard for that deserve to have their show. They’re pawns in this,” he said, adding: “The state fair is for all New Mexicans. And we hope next year all New Mexicans can come back and enjoy the show.”
Andrew Becker in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.