While crowds have returned to Saratoga Springs this summer, the largest crowd yet may descend on the city this weekend.
With a crowd as large as 50,000 people possible at Saratoga Race Course for today’s Travers Stakes and a slate of popular shows at Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the city could see the busiest weekend of a summer shaped by crowds returning to the city – all as the city and county remain listed as a region with high virus transmission.
But city and police officials say there is little more they can do to manage crowds or mitigate the spread of COVID-19, urging people to take care of themselves and noting that large crowds so far have yet to seed a major COVID-19 outbreak worse than other parts of the Capital Region.
Saratoga Springs police have already sought to increase their presence downtown this summer, particularly during late-night hours in the city’s Caroline Street bar district, working with the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department and state police to increase late-night weekend patrols each week this summer – the first time the city has enlisted sheriff’s deputies on a regular basis.
“Every weekend looks like Travers weekend so far,” said Saratoga Springs Police Lt. Bob Jillson, a department spokesperson. “It’s been busy, busy, busy, and we are going to continue on with what we have been doing.”
Jillson said hotels in the city have been booked full for weeks and noted that two major concerts would add to the track crowds this weekend. He said the police have worked with other agencies to expand weekend staffing but that city police and the other agencies can only increase staffing so much.
“We have the number (of police) that we have,” he said. “Overall, the number of officers is down.”
Robin Dalton, the Saratoga Springs public safety commissioner, said she was concerned about the large crowds this weekend but also said city police were not able to increase patrols any more than they already have for recent weekends.
“We are running at max capacity right now, there are no more people to be had,” Dalton said of police staffing. “As far as I know, we have been pretty maxed out on Friday and Saturday nights; I’m not aware of any extra, extra staffing.”
Dalton also highlighted concerns about the large crowds in the context of elevated COVID-19 infection numbers, noting that city officials are also limited in their ability to mandate masks anywhere outside of city hall.
“My concern about COVID is that we have people coming from all over the country and we don’t know if they are vaccinated or not vaccinated,” Dalton said. “If there was something I could have done to get people in masks again, to help people make safer choices, I would have done it.”
Visitor totals at the track in recent weekends point to the likelihood of a busy Travers day on Saturday: last weekend’s Alabama Stakes drew over 35,000 visitors to the track, down from 36,000 the week before and over 38,000 visitors for the Whitney Stakes earlier this month.
The New York Racing Association has capped attendance for the Travers Stakes at 50,000 since 2015, when crowds peaked at the new capacity limit to see triple crown winner American Pharoah upset by Keen Ice. Attendance figures for the hallmark race fluctuated between 47,000 and 50,000 in the years that followed. But no crowds were on hand last year, when Saratoga-raised Tiz the Law won the Travers race during a track season closed to the public.
But crowds at the track and throughout Saratoga Springs appeared to rebound this summer to at least pre-pandemic levels, bringing with them the perennial pros and cons of a town reliant on tourist spending but uninterested in the public drunkenness and violent incidents that come with bars that can stay open until 4 a.m.
“We have been busy all summer, so we are really prepared for the influx from Travers,” Saratoga Springs Mayor Meg Kelly said Friday.
City officials in recent weeks have passed measures requiring mask wearing at city hall and encouraging the use of masks in the broader community, but Kelly said the responsibility ultimately falls on each person visiting the city to do what they need to keep themselves safe.
“I’m hoping that people will wear a mask if they feel a need to wear masks and socially distance, but it’s downtown during Travers weekend,” Kelly said. “Everyone needs to take care of themselves. I don’t think Meg Kelly can stop the spread of COVID, it’s up to each individual.”
The return of crowds to the city this summer has also buoyed the prospects that the city will have a quick financial recovery from the hit of COVID closures and shutdowns in the past 18 months. Saratoga business leaders this summer have already trumpeted a surge in business and future revenue for the city.
“When (tax revenue) numbers come out in the fall, I think we are all going to be pleasantly surprised in how we turned it around so fast,” she said. “People are coming back, they are coming back in greater numbers, and hopefully that will turn around our revenues.”