Pandemic puts Saratoga racing season in doubt

Associated Press In this Aug. 27, 2016, file photo, horses break from the gate at the start of the Travers Stakes horse race at Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs.

ALBANY — One of the upstate region’s most popular tourist destinations, the Saratoga Race Course, will likely have to remain closed this summer due to the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday.

The thoroughbred track, long viewed as a crown jewel of American racing venues, is just 11 weeks away from its planned July 16 opening.

“Density is not our friend right now,” Cuomo said, adding: “How do you do six feet apart at the race track?”

With nonessential businesses closed for the past six weeks — including casinos, bowling alleys and restaurants — Cuomo said he believes New Yorkers are eager to get on the road to visit attractions, raising a significant concern at a time when public health strategy is to curb the spread of the virus.

Cuomo contended it would be more prudent to open attractions in a strategy that involved other nearby states.

“You open the Saratoga racetrack, I guarantee you’ll have the highest attendance in the history of the Saratoga racetrack,” he said. “You would have people from the entire Northeast region driving to the Saratoga racetrack just because they want to get out of the house.”

For each of the past five seasons, paid attendance at the Saratoga track has exceeded 1 million people, with daily crowds at time topping 40,000 people.

Many racing fans stream to the track from the metropolitan New York City region, which is now the biggest hot spot for COVID-19 infections and deaths in the nation.

Many of the track’s backstretch employees also come from downstate New York, where they also have jobs at the Aqueduct and Belmont tracks. Those two tracks as well as the Saratoga facility are all operated by the New York Racing Association. The state regulates and licenses the tracks, and licenses all owners, jockeys, trainers and others involved in parimutuel racing.

The New York State Fair near Syracuse, which runs from late August until early September, may also have to be canceled this year, he said.

“You can’t open an attraction that could bring people from across the state to that attraction and overwhelm a region,” Cuomo said.

“I don’t think you can open those unless we do it statewide because there is such a pent-up demand to get out of the house and do something,” he said.

A spokesman for NYRA, Pat McKenna, said the racing organization is working on a plan to conduct racing without fans at the track, though a final decision on whether that could happen rests with state officials.

“By closing to spectators and reducing employees and support staff to only those who are required under the rules of racing, the running of races would support the small businesses and hourly workers who form the backbone of the sport,” McKenna said in a statement.

He noted NYRA has experience managing a track without attendees for races.

“NYRA held races at Aqueduct Racetrack safely and securely under these conditions through March 15,” McKenna said. “Our experience during this period of time, as well as our ability to continue the training operation at Belmont Park throughout the pandemic, informs the strict safety protocols that we currently have in place at Belmont Park and would seek to implement at Saratoga Race Course.”

Cuomo’s practice of conducting daily press briefings without an American Sign Language interpreter present has kept deaf New Yorkers from getting “vital life and death information at the time they need it most,” said Timothy Clune, director of Disability Rights New York.

The advocacy group announced it is challenging the lack of an interpreter at the briefings through a federal court lawsuit that seeks to force the Cuomo administration to include in-frame interpreters during the televised briefings.

Cuomo’s staff arranges the briefings for the governor to be on camera for almost the entire sessions, and unlike briefings conducted by some other government executives, no microphones are provided to pick up questions from reporters in the audience.

Clune said it is “inexplicable” the New York briefings are conducted with no American Sign Interpreters.

While the rate of new infections from the pandemic has tapered off in many regions of New York, the state’s fatality total has now reached 17,968, including an additional 330 deaths from Tuesday to Wednesday. The number of daily deaths has been dropping markedly after hitting a high of 799 fatalities April 8.

The latest statewide data shows a total of 299,691 New Yorkers have now tested positive for the virus, a tally reflecting a growth of 4,585 new cases in one day.

Cuomo said the state must proceed with reopening the economy cautiously. He noted Germany moved too quickly with its reopening, pointing to statistics showing the country’s spread rate from those who have tested positive went from 0.7 persons to 1.1 persons within several days after restrictions there were relaxed.

“It shows you how fast the infection rate can increase if you don’t do it right,” Cuomo said.

The governor is expected to make a decision by Friday as to whether New York school districts can bring students back to classrooms before the academic year ends in June.

Cuomo has argued that schools should open at the same time businesses do because of the potential problems in arranging child care when children have to be at home while their parents are working.

County governments, meanwhile, are planning for major drops in sales tax revenue.

The New York State Association of Counties, citing federal data, said March sales tax revenue from sales at motor vehicles and parts dealers is expected to decline by 23.7%, while gas station sales declined by 18% and department store sales were off by 23.9%.

“Massive declines” are also anticipated from tourism-related businesses, such as hotels and motels, according to the association.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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