The state’s decision to allow horse-racing to resume without fans is welcome news for the struggling industry and in particular for the Saratoga region, whose summer tourism economy could be devastated by the coronavirus crisis.
But we can only be cautiously optimistic until we see how this situation pans out in Belmont Park.
The Saratoga racing season depends solely on how the New York Racing Association and state officials are able to effectively control the spread of the disease among horse-racing workers at the downstate track, as well as at harness-racing tracks around the state that also are allowed to reopen on June 1.
In a sense, the Belmont workers are the guinea pigs for Saratoga thoroughbred racing, letting us all see in real time whether the safety measures to protect backstretch workers and others associated with racing actually work.
If there’s no spike in sicknesses, it’s reasonable to assume the protocols put in place at Belmont will work in Saratoga.
If there is a spike, then we’ll have time between now and July to find out where the problems are, whether they can be fixed, and whether it’s safe to hold racing up here.
NYRA’s Preparedness and Response Plan Committee worked to develop new protocols.
Among them are mandatory health screening and temperature checks for all personnel seeking to access the property, adjustments to support strict social distancing, mandatory personal protective measures such as a requirement that workers wear masks, preventive quarantine protocols, testing and contract tracing. Workers at the track who have experienced symptoms have been asked to stay home and contact their health provider.
On Thursday, NYRA announced it had partnered with Northwell Health to secure free antibody testing for its employees and backstretch workers at Belmont. Results will be available within two days.
The protocols all seem reasonable and fall in line with the steps that health professionals and government officials have been advising businesses and individuals to take in order to prevent the spread of the virus as the economy reopens.
How they work in a concentrated, closed environment like the backstretch of Belmont, and how they’d work specifically in Saratoga, is a big question.
State officials need to be vigilant in monitoring the health of the workers and enforcing the safety measures.
While live racing without fans isn’t the ideal outcome for Saratoga, having racing will result in employment opportunities for the track workers, as well as opportunities for local businesses directly and indirectly related to the horse-racing industry to provide food, beverages and services to the hundreds of workers, jockeys and staff on the site. And it will provide desperately needed sales tax for the city of Saratoga Springs and area communities.
For the health and safety of the affected workers, as well as the health of the local economy, let’s keep our fingers crossed that they can pull this off.