Large sports and entertainment venues in NY get OK to let in some spectators

Saratoga Race Course, covered in snow on Wednesday
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Saratoga Race Course, covered in snow on Wednesday

The door, finally, is open.

Citing the success of a pilot program to let some fans into Buffalo Bills home games, Governor Andrew Cuomo has decided to allow other large sports and entertainment venues in New York state to do the same for events starting on Feb. 23.

Although venues with a seating capacity of at least 10,000 still face a variety of challenges to comply with the initial set of guidelines, Cuomo’s decision at least provides an opportunity for these arenas and stadiums to re-open at a limit of 10% capacity.

This gives hope to those who have missed events at places like Saratoga Race Course and the Times Union Center because of COVID-19 lockouts, although it’s unclear whether Cuomo’s decision applies to a venue like Saratoga Performing Arts Center, which regularly draws over 10,000 but does not have that many permanent seats.

Re-opening will be contingent upon passing inspection by the state Department of Health, which the Barclays Center has done, meaning the Brooklyn Nets have been approved to let a limited number of fans in for their game against the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 23.

The 153rd Saratoga Race Course season is scheduled to begin on Thursday, July 15. The New York Racing Association, which also oversees Belmont Park and Aqueduct, has been conducting spectator-free racing at its three tracks since June 3, 2020.

With a total capacity of 13,000, between reserved seats, clubhouse boxes and the 1863 Club and Stretch hospitality areas, Saratoga meets the 10,000 standard. Including general admission, the track drew a total of over one million in paid attendance in 2019, but for the first time in Saratoga’s history, dating to 1863, the general public was barred in 2020. Belmont Park, which is scheduled to host the Belmont Stakes on June 5, seats 27,000.

“Sports and entertainment venues in New York are responsible for tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic impact. NYRA applauds Governor Cuomo for taking action today to get New Yorkers back to work and fans back in seats,” said NYRA director of communications and media relations Pat McKenna.

“NYRA is reviewing the newly announced guidelines to determine how they apply to Aqueduct Racetrack, where the first floor is currently the site of a New York State COVID-19 vaccination center, and to Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course.

“NYRA has been conducting live racing without spectators in attendance since June 3 and we are eager to welcome racing fans back to our venues at the appropriate time and with the approval of the New York State Gaming Commission.”

The no-spectator policy prompted Siena College to move its men’s basketball games from the Saints’ home arena, the 15,229-seat TU Center, the the UHY Center on campus.

The Siena men’s team has two home games scheduled in March, but the MAAC has a no-fan policy through the end of March, and that policy won’t change, according to MAAC commissioner Richard Ensor.

TU Center general manager Bob Belber and Siena athletic director John D’Argenio did not return calls for comment.

The new guidelines could mean a return of live concerts, though in a limited capacity, and only at the larger venues.

SPAC may fill that requirement. According to its website, SPAC’s capacity is 25,000, with 5,200 sheltered seats and room for about 20,000 on the lawn.

“Though we do not yet know exactly how today’s new guidelines for certain arenas and stadiums will affect SPAC, we are thankful for Governor Cuomo’s  commitment to bringing back the arts in a safe and smart way,” SPAC president and CEO Elizabeth Sobol said in a release.

“He recognizes the tremendous value of  the arts in our state and today’s action is another step in reopening New York’s economy.  We look forward to working with his administration as reopening  continues so we can once again welcome audiences back to SPAC in 2021 in accordance with all applicable health and safety protocols.”

Guidelines for the pilot program at the Bills games included DOH approval, capacity limitations, testing requirements, mandatory face coverings, temperature checks and assigned, socially distanced seating.

The Bills were allowed to distribute 6,700 tickets for a Jan. 9 Wild Card game against the Indianapolis Colts, and did the same for a Divisional playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens on Jan. 16.

“While we continue to fight COVID on multiple fronts, we must also get this economy re-opened intelligently and in a balanced way,” Cuomo said. “Live sports and entertainment have long been engrained in the fabric of New York and the inability to hold events has only added to the isolation we have all felt at the hands of this virus. Thankfully, our pilot program to reopen Buffalo Bills games to fans was an unparalleled success and now we are taking that model and expanding it to other large venues across the state to not only reinvigorate local economies, but also help bring some fun and joy back into people’s lives as safely as possible.”

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