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Saratoga Springs Prepares For Impacted Summer Tourism Season

Saratoga Race Course
Lucas Willard
Saratoga Race Course

On Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo cast more uncertainty about live horse racing at Saratoga Race Course this summer. With a meet scheduled to begin in July and the unpredictability of the coronavirus pandemic, the Democrat addressed the question of whether to reopen the summer tourism destination in his daily briefing.

He warned that reopening attractions would draw large crowds of visitors from New York and beyond, creating issues for venues that likely will still be practicing some level of social distancing.

“How do you do 6 feet at the race track? How do you do 6 feet apart at the State Fair? How do you do 6 feet apart at the racetrack or State Fair and you have double the attendance you’ve ever had and people are all crammed in, you know?

So I think it would have to be a statewide opening, coordinate with Connecticut, coordinate with the New Jersey…otherwise you will wind up with a much, much more dense situation if you end up being the only attraction in town.”

Cuomo earlier this week suggested that large-scale sports events could consider how to operate without fans in the stands.

The New York Racing Association, which operates Saratoga Race Course, ran races at Aqueduct closed to spectators, and has put in place safety protocols during the training season at Belmont Park.

Right now, the opening of the Oklahoma Training Track at Saratoga Race Course remains postponed. With the summer meet set to begin July 16th, NYRA is considering running races at Saratoga without fans.

In an email, NYRA spokesman Patrick McKenna said in part:

“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.”

Saratoga Springs Finance Commissioner Michele Madigan estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic will impact city finances by $14 to $16 million, about a third of the annual budget.

She said a racing season without fans would provide some revenue…

“But it’s not going to be enough to help me plug a $14 to $16 revenue hole.”

Right now, the city of Saratoga Springs is redoing the budget. Madigan has asked all city departments to find ways to cut expenses by 10 percent.

“And that’s just the first step that we’re looking at to reduce expenses for 2020,” said Madigan.

Madigan will reveal more details at next Tuesday’s city council meeting.

Recently, Governor Cuomo proposed $10 billion in cuts to the current state budget, including about $8 billion in local aid. Cuomo has warned that without federal stimulus funding to state and local governments, education and public services would take significant cuts.

Saratoga Springs Mayor Meg Kelly says the city is in the same spot as many other communities seeking federal aid.

“We’re here, we’re running cities. And you have to help us out financially or we will have bigger problems than we have right now. But hopefully, we won’t get to that with getting this virus under control, and then we can start to open back up and get people back into the city and the city moving in the right direction again,” said Kelly.

The opening of Saratoga Race Course is 11 weeks away. At a time when public health concerns and measures can change by the day, Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Todd Shimkus said it’s too early to make a prediction of when things will turnaround for a “normal” summer tourism season.

“We don’t just want the track to open, we want SPAC to be open. We want the City Center to be open. We want the athletic fields to be open, those bring in visitors and tourists. We want the canal to be open. But all of these have to wait. They all have to wait until it’s safe for them to be open. And when it’s safe, when we can do it in a healthy way, let’s make sure we do it right,” said Shimkus.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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