ALBANY — Spectators will be allowed to attend races at Saratoga Race Course in limited numbers this summer.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday that horse and auto race tracks will be able to open at 20% capacity starting April 22. He also announced that the mandatory closing time for restaurants and bars would be pushed back from 11 p.m. to midnight starting Monday, while the curfew for catered events will be moved from midnight to 1 a.m.
The moves continue the incremental reopening of public gathering places in recent months, as the state recovered from the second surge of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the last year, in-person drinking and dining at bars and restaurants has been limited or banned altogether, and Saratoga Race Course held its 2020 meet without spectators.
The news was greeted Wednesday with enthusiasm but not unbridled joy in Saratoga Springs, where the business community relies heavily on the million-plus horse fans who attend the race course each summer.
The full details were not released, so it’s not clear whether the governor is allowing 20% of seating capacity (which would be 2,600) at Saratoga Race Course or 20% of full capacity (which would be about 10,000).
And whatever the limit is, each and every one of the attendees will need to present proof of vaccination or recent negative COVID test, Cuomo said.
Before 2020, average daily paid admission at the track had been in the mid- to high 20,000s, with big weekend race days drawing in the high 40,000s.
“As the situation becomes more manageable, we’re allowing spectators at auto and horse races back into stadiums to safely enjoy great events together,” Cuomo said in a prepared statement. “We have a long way to go before reaching a level of immunity that defeats the COVID beast for good, and that’s why New Yorkers need to continue practicing safe behaviors as they go about their daily lives.”
New York Racing Association President Dave O’Rourke thanked the governor for the chance to host fans at the Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga tracks for the first time during the pandemic.
“We will announce ticketing options for fans once we further review the guidelines and protocols set forth for thoroughbred tracks in New York state,” he said in a news release.
NYRA added via email:
“NYRA has been continually working on plans to welcome fans back to Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course in 2021. While we are optimistic that capacity limits will increase in the coming months, we have a variety of options to address scenarios where demand is far greater than supply. The specifics continue to evolve, but our goal in each scenario is to be able to accommodate as many fans as possible by offering purchasing options that are fair and equitable.”
Saratoga Springs Mayor Meg Kelly said the city, too, is hoping the situation will evolve to allow more than 20% attendance. NYRA has been careful and successful with infection control, she added, which suggests that such a move could be done safely.
“It’s great news for Saratoga Springs,” she said. “We need the visitors to arrive here. We had a rough summer and a rough year.”
Saratoga County Chamber President Todd Shimkus said the lack of detail Wednesday was frustrating — was Cuomo saying 20% of seats or 20% of the total? He worries it’s seating, which would be less than 3,000 people, and said that’s hardly something to celebrate.
“With the governor the announcements are never what we think,” Shimkus said. “This is the ongoing problem with all of these protocols: They’re arbitrary numbers and the details of what it means is not known for days or weeks.”
He continued: “Nobody in the governor’s office is consulting with anybody in the real world about what’s happening here … every single facility is different. A one-size-fits-all solution across the board doesn’t take into consideration the lawn at SPAC or the backyard at Saratoga.”
State Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, whose district includes the Race Course as well as the harness track at Saratoga Casino Hotel, said she, too, was waiting for the final guidance on horse track attendance.
The frequent critic of Cuomo’s policies and actions took a more reserved tone than Shimkus. Jordan said via email:
“Horse racing — and horse racing fans watching the races in person — are absolutely critical to Saratoga Springs and Saratoga County’s economy: our restaurants, hotels, tourism, and struggling small businesses that rely on the racing season. After a racing season without spectators, it’s essential that fans be allowed to attend the 2021 racing season and that it be done safely and sensibly.
“I have already spoken with the New York Racing Association, who is working closely with the Governor’s office to obtain official guidelines for the 2021 racing season. I’ll carefully review those formal guidelines the moment they are made available. I’m hopeful that as more New Yorkers continue getting vaccinated, more spectators will be allowed at the Saratoga meet this summer.”
Saratoga Race Course is scheduled to open for training on Saturday.
Its 2021 racing meet will consist of 40 racing days from July 15 through Sept. 6.