Gov. Wolf Slams Barn Door On Resuming Racing Before Phase Green

Posted on May 12, 2020

Gov. Tom Wolf shut the barn door on a request to resume horse racing without spectators and with safety protocols on Tuesday.

Wolf’s response leaves no room for early openings even with safety measures.

Lumped in with casinos and theaters

It reads: “We foresee horse racing reopening when counties enter the green phase, like other entertainment (casinos, theaters, etc).”

On May 1, the PA State Horse Racing Commission sent a formal letter to Wolf asking him to consider allowing racing to resume with safety protocols, including no spectators. Tracks then submitted plans for reopening to the racing commission by May 8.

Horse racing never completely stopped everywhere even as COVID-19 peaked across the US and around the globe. But racing shut down in Pennsylvania on March 16. PA tracks remain closed despite racing or plans to resume racing elsewhere.

Three of PA’s tracks have remained active, but without racing

But even with tracks shut down, the backsides where barns and living quarters adjoin tracks have remained open and active at some locations. Those include the Meadows Racetrack & Casino, Penn National Racecourse, and Parx Racing.

Wolf had stated at a press conference he’d consider returning to racing, but he had left the horse community in limbo with no response for 11 days.

That was until May 12, when he said “no.”

Wolf’s complete response to horse racing request

Dear Chairman Redding:

Thank you for your letter regarding the horse racing industry’s efforts to mitigate coronavirus (COVID 19). I appreciate the support for the commonwealth’s efforts, as keeping Pennsylvanians safe takes collaboration and partnership across Pennsylvania.

With new case counts showing that our aggressive mitigation efforts have flattened the curve in Pennsylvania, my administration has begun to plan a reopening process that protects Pennsylvanians and helps to stabilize the economy. Pennsylvania will utilize a three-phase matrix to determine when counties and/or regions are ready to begin easing some restrictions on work, congregate settings, and social interactions. This plan will begin to take effect on May 8, 2020, with 24 counties moving to a “yellow” phase of reopening.

Pennsylvania must proceed with returning to work cautiously. Broad reopenings or reopenings that are not structured around ongoing social distancing, universal masking, or other public health guidance would likely result in a spike of cases and new stay-at-home and closure orders. Throughout this process, we will have guidance in place to support best public health practices. This guidance will reinforce and build on existing worker and building safety orders. It will also be able to adapt to the changing nature of the pandemic, as well as lessons learned from communities that return to work strategically. The administration is working with economic and public health experts to determine the metrics used for safe reopening by taking a regional, sector-based approach. More information on this plan can be found at governor.pa.gov.

As part of this reopening effort, we foresee horse racing reopening when counties enter the green phase, like other entertainment (casinos, theaters, etc). I commend the Commission’s efforts to implement mitigation efforts for those who are continuing to care for the horses at this time, and forethought in planning for how to address public health and safety as it relates to each phase of reopening.

Thank you again for your efforts and sacrifices during this unprecedented time. We all have work we need to do to build a new commonwealth, and this plan for relief, reopening, and recovery will keep more Pennsylvanians alive and repair the damage this virus has caused across Pennsylvania.

Not seeing eye to eye

Pete Peterson of the PA Equine Coalition questioned the governor’s grasp of what was being sought.

“The industry is not looking for a full-scale opening; It is seeking a limited reopening with no fans and limits on owners and others who could be on-premises. This could be accomplished largely with personnel who are already working on a daily basis on the backside of three of the six racetracks.

“It was not clear to me from the Governor’s response that he fully grasps what the industry is requesting. His reference to movie theaters and other inside entertainment that are attracting patrons to the facility has no similarity to an outside racetrack facility that would be closed off from the public and have limited participants who would follow the CDC guidelines.

Mark Egloff, a farm manager, can’t understand why Wolf would lump a track without spectators in with a theater or a casino.

He also doesn’t get why the governor would spurn revenue at a time when the state has had so many income sources shut down.

Racing commission meets in two weeks

The racing commission meets by phone on May 26.

The governor’s letter should be front-and-center.

The racing industry already had a strained relationship with the Wolf administration. The governor proposed in February taking money – $204 million annually – from a racing trust fund to pay for scholarships he proposed in his budget announcement.

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Kevin Shelly

Kevin C. Shelly is an award-winning career journalist who has spent most of his career in South Jersey. He's the former assistant city editor of The Press of Atlantic City, where he covered the casino industry and Atlantic City government as a reporter. He was also an investigative, narrative enterprise, and features reporter for Gannett’s Courier-Post.

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