Cuomo says reopening Saratoga Race Course would be tough, locals predict struggles without tourism


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Cities all over New York are itching to reopen their economies. The question is: If they do, will people even come?

“It’s one thing to be reopened, it’s another thing for people to be comfortable coming back,” says Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus.

The Saratoga Race Course alone brings around $240 million to the surrounding region every year, spanning income from Columbia to Warren Counties.

Saratoga Springs in particular is very heavily fueled by tourism dollars. Worst case scenario, the city could miss out on $14 million if businesses and large venues like the race course, SPAC, and the historical park stay closed for the rest of the year, according to Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan. She says the city is already looking at 10 percent budget cuts to all departments.

“Of course we hope layoffs are an alternative that we do not have to turn to, that we can make specific cuts across the board that would not necessarily include layoffs, but layoffs are not off the table,” Madigan explains to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.

Governor Cuomo also addressed large venues like Saratoga Race Course and the New York State Fair when discussing plans to reopen the economy during a press briefing Wednesday.

“As of today, I don’t think you can open those unless we do it statewide,” the governor said.

Using the Saratoga racing season as an example, he says no large event can be held without the risk of “overwhelming a region” and thus leading to future spikes in coronavirus infections.

“You will have people from the entire Northeast region driving to the Saratoga race track just because they want to get out of the house. Now you could say that’s great for the Saratoga race track, but density is not our friend,” Cuomo said predicting record turnouts to such venues. “How do you do six feet apart at the racetrack or the state fair when you have double the attendance you’ve ever had and people are all crammed in there, you know?”

To keep the economy going, organizers are toying with the possibility of races is still run with empty stands. The New York Racing Association released a statement by Director of Communications Pat McKenna saying:

NYRA joins the entire racing community in applauding Governor Cuomo’s steady leadership throughout this unprecedented public health crisis. We recognize that decisions about large scale events are rightly left to our elected leaders and public health officials. At the same time, horseracing is in a unique position as a sport that can be safely staged without attendees. Earlier this week, Governor Cuomo encouraged sports entities to consider how they could operate without fans in attendance that would be economically viable while providing much needed entertainment. By closing to spectators and reducing employees and support staff to only those who are required under the rules of racing, the running of races would support the small businesses and hourly workers who form the backbone of the sport. NYRA held races at Aqueduct Racetrack safely and securely under these conditions through March 15. Our experience during this period of time, as well as our ability to continue the training operation at Belmont Park throughout the pandemic, informs the strict safety protocols that we currently have in place at Belmont Park and would seek to implement at Saratoga Race Course.

As such, NYRA is seeking to resume live racing at Belmont Park in the absence of fans and we have prepared operating plans that follow the same model for Saratoga. These plans prioritize the health and safety of employees, horsemen and the backstretch community and include a broad array of risk mitigation strategies developed according to the most updated heath guidance. By closing to the public, layering additional health and safety protocols to our ongoing practices, and reducing the number of employees on-property, NYRA is in a position to provide a small sense of normalcy for fans across the country who can watch on television and online. At the same time, this model will enable NYRA to preserve its ability to serve as the cornerstone of an industry that generates more than 19,000 jobs in New York and $3 billion in annual economic impact.

This is a delicate balance, and one that must always prioritize health and safety. NYRA has experience finding that balance and we are committed to taking every step possible to keep our communities safe while providing entertainment and contributing to the New York economy as we collectively begin the return to a new normal.

Madigan says races with the absence of fans still isn’t a perfect solution.

“Even if they open without spectators, that’s not necessarily going to help the local economy much. What it does help is the thoroughbred racing season, which is very important to the ongoing economy of Saratoga Springs,” she explains.

She also adds this potential plan still brings trainers, racers and staff from all over the nation to the area.

“Our race course is smack in the heart of a neighborhood, so we have to make sure that our community is also feeling very comfortable with that plan,” Madigan says.

The county is working on a survey through Mind Genomics to try and find out the safest way to open the economy and large venues, as well as ensuring the ease to residents and potential visitors.

“What we are trying to find out is what can we do in Saratoga County to make people feel safe coming here? We are going to get some incredible data on that and insight,” explains Shimkus.

He also adds it’s the chamber’s objective to make sure local businesses don’t close without their expected summer tourism rush.

“That’s what makes us unique, it’s the locally owned stores, so our job at the chamber, our job with our partners, is to make sure that those folks survive this downtime so that we can rise again,” he says.

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