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Fleeing the state's strict restrictions on sports, New Mexico basketball teams seek refuge in two of Texas' worst hot spots

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New Mexico Lobos guard Zane Martin controls the ball in a game against the Air Force Falcons at Clune Arena in Colorado. Feb 26, 2020. Credit: Isaiah J. Downing/USA Today Sports via REUTERS

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Facing restrictive policies prohibiting team sports, the University of New Mexico’s basketball teams have fled their home state, seeking refuge in Lubbock and Amarillo — two of the hardest hit coronavirus hot spots in Texas.

UNM is relocating both the women’s and men’s teams hoping to take advantage of laxer COVID-19 restrictions in the Lonestar State, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.

New Mexico is currently under a two-week shutdown of nonessential businesses, which started Monday in an attempt to curb coronavirus spread. Under current state guidelines, athletic departments don’t allow games or workouts of more than five people, and anyone who comes from outside the state must quarantine for 14 days. These guidelines led to UNM’s football team relocating to Nevada to practice and host games last month.

In Texas, where total cases exceeded 1 million last week, Gov. Greg Abbott has allowed sporting events to go forward with 50% capacity in the stands, though most major university football programs opted to set their capacities at 25% this fall. Student athletes and staff have tested positive for the coronavirus throughout the season, requiring several cancellations. Texas A&M postponed their game last Saturday against the University of Tennessee after a player and staffer tested positive and later postponed this Saturday's game against Ole Miss. The University of Texas and the University of Houston also delayed their respective games this Saturday.

“We’re an open-door community,” said Lubbock County Judge Curtis Parrish about the out-of-state team’s move. “We want people to come in for whatever they need.”

Parrish’s interview with The Texas Tribune came less than an hour after his office announced he tested positive for COVID-19.

The men’s team will reside in Lubbock temporarily, though UNM is still finalizing where the team will practice and play games. Parrish said he has no worries and that he trusts the university to take the necessary health precautions.

At West Texas A&M University, where the UNM women’s team will play, an official said the school is “pleased to host” the Lobos.

“There are no concerns from my perspective. These are private basketball practices being held in a gym with student-athletes who are being tested 3-4 times per week for COVID, have daily symptom checks and basically live in a bubble outside of practice,” said Michael McBroom, the university’s athletic director in an email. “We will continue to exercise the responsibility and opportunity to serve our students and state as a demonstration of our thoughtful commitment to excellence.”

In Texas’ Panhandle, where West Texas A&M is located, the hospitalization rate is nearly 40%. Abbott said that hospital regions with more than 15% of capacity serving COVID-19 patients are considered severe enough that bar openings should be banned In Lubbock, the hospitalization rate is nearly 30%.

Both areas also have some of the highest rates of COVID-19 per 1,000 cases in the state.

According to Santa Fe New Mexican, Eddie Nuñez, UNM’s athletic director, chose West Texas because it was close to Albuquerque after considering a number of locations. The school’s football team already moved out of the state to Nevada so it could play its games and salvage broadcast contracts.

The newspaper also reported that there had been no new COVID-19 cases in either the football or basketball teams since last week.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University, University of Houston and West Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.