At least in Kentucky this September, fans will be allowed to root for their favorite Triple Crown contender. On June 25, Churchill Downs Racetrack announced that, following consultation with Governor Andy Beshear and state public health officials, spectators would be allowed to be present at this year’s Kentucky Derby on September 5. Fans will also be allowed on Kentucky Oaks Day, which is the day before.
However, it won’t be a mint julep-fueled free-for-all by any stretch of the imagination. There will be strict spectator guidelines at the track, and as Churchill noted in its announcement, “venue capacity reductions [will be put in place] to limit overall crowd density, including general admission, outdoor reserved seating, premium dining and suites.” It’s still unclear how greatly this year’s crowd will be reduced; last year’s waterlogged Derby, which saw a wild winner-by-disqualification play out, drew in more than 150,000 spectators (attendance at 2018’s Derby was closer to 160,000).
“We truly appreciate the leadership of the Governor of Kentucky, Andy Beshear, and all of the hard work, collaboration and guidance that state and local officials and public health experts have provided us to safely and responsibly host Kentucky Derby Week in September with spectators,” said Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery in a statement. “Our team is deeply committed to holding the very best Kentucky Derby ever, and we will take all necessary steps to protect the health and safety of all who attend and participate in the Derby. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have established a comprehensive set of operating procedures, which include a multitude of precautionary measures to be followed while fans are in attendance at our facility. We are determined to keep our customers, employees and communities as safe as we responsibly can.”
The plan for reopening the track to spectators was developed by Churchill Downs in conjunction the Louisville Metro Health Department and the governor’s Healthy at Work program.
At press time, Churchill Downs released a partial list of steps that will be taken to ensure spectators’ and track personnel’s safety:
*Access throughout the facility will be severely limited
*Credentials for employees, media and guests will be reduced
*Barn area access will be restricted to essential personnel; guests and parties in the barn area for morning workouts and during race days will be eliminated
*Changes in venue operations to limit person-to-person touchpoints
*Team member protocols established to protect employees and guests
*A revised “Fan Code of Conduct” that establishes expectations for guests coming to the Derby
Churchill Downs’ statement also noted that spectators would be “consistently and frequently encouraged to wear a mask at all times unless seated in their reserved seat or venue,” though it’s unclear whether “encouraged” translates to “enforced.” This would include when spectators are riding on shuttles; traveling through the venue; going to the restroom; placing an in-person wager; and purchasing food or beverages from a concession stand. Spectators will also be asked to wash their hands for 20 seconds or sanitize them frequently; and encouraged to socially distance themselves from others whenever possible.
Obviously, Churchill Downs’ decision runs in stark counterpoint to that of the New York Racing Association’s (NYRA’s)—vis-à-vis New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s—to not allow fans (or even owners) at this year’s Belmont Stakes, which ran on June 20 and was won by Saratoga’s own Tiz the Law; and, at least at press time, the Saratoga Race Course summer meet, which is set to kick off on July 16. (NYRA did not immediately respond to Saratoga Living when it asked for comment on the Derby news.) Cuomo’s reticence is more than likely based, partially, on the fact that New York State is currently leading all other states in the union with 400,000-plus COVID-19 cases and more than 30,000 deaths, compared to Kentucky, which has had just a 14,000-plus cases and 538 deaths.