SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Fans can still watch the thoroughbred races at Saratoga this summer and put down money on their favorites. They just can't do it in person.
That's never happened before. Whole racing seasons have been cancelled due to anti-gambling sentiment or war, but never -- until this year -- was there Saratoga racing without the roar of crowds.
Saratoga Race Course is opening Thursday, but state rules intended to reduce the spread of COVID-19 will keep fans away. The city of Saratoga Springs, however, will still welcome fans with open, but extended, arms.
With plenty of people still nervous about indoor dining, a number of bars and restaurants are setting up patio or sidewalk areas where patrons can gather to watch the races on big video screens, order food and drink, and bet using their smartphones.
"It's a season in Saratoga unlike any other," said Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce. "Our plan for Thursday, for an example of how things are changed, is instead of going to the track on Opening Day, we will be going around to as many watch parties as possible."
ERICA MILLER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Luis Saez atop Weekend Hideaway, trained by Phil Serpe wins the 15th running of The John Morrissey stakes at Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, on Thursday, July 26, 2018.
Things could be worse for a city that relies on visitors who put the punch in the city's economy every summer. It wasn't clear until a few weeks ago there would be any racing at all. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo granted his permission for the season to go forward on May 16.
The 40-day meet, commonly considered some of the best horse racing in the world, will include the $1 million Runhappy Travers on August 8 and $750,000 Whitney on August 1.
"While this will be anything but a traditional Saratoga season, we hope to provide a semblance of normalcy for both the local community as well as racing fans across the country," NYRA President and CEO Dave O'Rourke said when the racing plan was announced.
Fans will be able to watch racing in real time through NYRA's simulcasting system, and Fox Sports channels and MSG networks will also have daily Saratoga coverage, all of which people can gather with friends to watch.
"It's going to be a lot like the back yard at the track, sitting at the picnic tables and watching the race on TV," Shimkus said. "Not the same experience as before, but still a fun one."
A study commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce and released Wednesday found that among those who have been to Saratoga before, 71 percent said they were "very likely" to visit Saratoga County within the next six months.
The 29 percent who said they would probably not be visiting were either concerned that local venues they visited would follow public health guidelines, or had general concerns about the virus and a lack of a vaccine.
The city's traditional tourism markets are in the Northeast -- New York and New Jersey, Hartford, Boston. Shimkus expects the city to still draw from those markets, though advertising will for the first time in years also target local day trippers or one-night visitors from the Capital Region and Hudson Valley.
Saratoga County allocated $50,000 for a digital and broadcast media campaign encouraging people from those regions to visit, in hope of filling restaurant tables and aiding other visitor-reliant businesses, despite the pandemic and fears it has induced about interstate travel.
"Our hope is that our regional ad campaign will motivate people in the region to come visit Saratoga County," said Waterford Town Supervisor John E. Lawler, chairman of the county's Re-opening Committee. "We want visitors to come to Saratoga County to help our local businesses as they reopen in this challenging time."
Advance hotel bookings aren't what they would be in a normal summer, but Shimkus said there are still visitors planning to come to the city -- and they can get a good deal on accommodations, since hotels are discounting their usual racing-season rates.
A separate problem facing restaurants and retailers is resistance from visitors to wearing masks -- a problem across the country that has led to disputes and even physical confrontations. Stewart's Shops, for example, has told its employees not to challenge people who come into the convenience stores without masks.
Public Safety Commissioner Robin Dalton, at a City Council meeting last week, called the resistance masking in public "a serious citywide problem." While Cuomo has issued an executive order requiring people to wear masks when they can't socially distance, Dalton said the city police department has no authority to enforce the requirement.
"There are people who are home who are too afraid to go downtown because they're immune compromised and they're afraid they're going to get sick," she said. "There are people who want to travel here who are not traveling here because they've heard people here are not compliant with safety protocols of wearing a mask, specificially."
City police are also dealing with a lot of complaints about people not wearing masks anyway, even while working with NYRA to plan for the meet's unique circumstances.
Assistant Police Chief John Catone said there will still be two police officers assigned full-time to the track -- a traffic sergeant and a canine-handling officer -- as in the past. They will handle traffic and security, and be ready if the public is allowed to return at some point before Labor Day. It's widely speculated that horse owners will be allowed into the track at some point, though there's little prospect of full fan attendance.
The officers' duties will include discouraging people congregating along the Union Avenue and Nelson Avenue fence lines to watch, even if they can't get on the grounds -- an issue that's arisen in the past for attendance-capped races, and which the police and NYRA are discussing. "We want the track to succeed and we want NYRA to succeed, but we also don't want 1,000 people crowding the fence line," Catone said.
Downtown, the police department will have increased summer staffing, but not as much as in a year when fans can attend -- and then flock to Broadway afterward, to either celebrate, or drown their sorrows. More rule changes -- which Catone said have generally come without warning -- are also possible.
"It's a fluid situation," Catone said. "If restaurants and bars are allowed to go to 75 percent, 100 percent occupancy, then we will have to make adjustments."
Even though arrests have been light this summer compared to the past, Catone said police have been extremely busy, especially in the evening. "We have a huge homeless population, we respond to accidents, we get calls about people not wearing masks, and then either code enforcement or one of our officers has to go and try to educate the establishment," he said. "It's not a lot of arrests, but it's a lot of calls for service."
While Cuomo's efforts to keep the pandemic from reviving in New York currently include quarantine restrictions for visitors from 19 states, none of them are in the Northeast, where the track's main audience lives.
"Our traditional market is still there if they want to come and have some fun," Shimkus said. "It's not going to be the same experience as before, but still a fun one."