Who’s the Boss? PA Racetracks Police Safety Protocols, Meadows Restricts Spectators

Written By Kevin Shelly on August 11, 2020 - Last Updated on August 22, 2020
PA horse tracks attempt to enforce safety protocols

Mark Loewe, the chief operating officer for Meadows Casino Racetrack near Pittsburgh, made a disturbing report about virus safety protocols during an otherwise routine meeting of the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission on July 28.

The industry veteran, who began his career as a groomsman and now oversees the Meadows and an Ohio track for parent company Penn National Gaming, told the commissioners that tracks were experiencing issues with noncompliant patrons. Specifically, he said some were not following PA horse track virus safety measures, and especially not wearing masks.

Maskless gambler purposefully coughed on an employee

One maskless patron even purposefully coughed on an employee at the associated Penn National Race Course before getting removed, Loewe said during his startling report.

The comments about bad behavior by gamblers stood out among the otherwise upbeat reports from other Keystone State track officials about patrons and horsemen being happy to be back to racing after a three-month shutdown brought on by COVID-19 restrictions.

Meadows situation briefly noted by race commission

The Meadows was the first track in the state to reopen, holding races once again on June 15, but with safety protocols.

Racing at the Meadows was set for a four-day-a-week schedule — Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday — with a 12:45 p.m. post each day.

Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, who also serves as the racing commission’s chairman, fleetingly mentioned the bad behavior by patrons as he summarized the industry reports just before the meeting ended.

But there was no further discussion by Redding or anyone else on the commission as to how to deal with patrons who are not following safety measures.

Perhaps that’s because no one is clearly responsible for enforcement, but more on that in a bit.

Meadows shuts off pari-mutuel wagering due to patron behavior

Not discussed at the race commission meeting was the Meadows’ decision to stop accepting in-person pari-mutuel wagers and to close the track to spectators on July 3, as reported by TribLive.

While the Trib did not explain the reason behind the actions, the closures were meant to address bad patron behavior, a Meadows employee told PlayPennsylvania.

And Meadows still has no in-person wagering on Saturdays

When in-person wagering again returned after a short hiatus, there were several new rules in place at the Meadows. They included no on-site pari-mutuel wagering on Saturdays and no spectators on Saturdays, either.

A Meadows employee said that’s because Saturday races drew crowds of up to 300 people. Many patrons did not follow state-mandated mask and distancing requirements. The response was to have no spectators or on-site wagering on Saturdays, he said.

Loewe on Monday texted that he would respond to a request for comment from PlayPennsylvania, but he has not. A spokesman for Penn National, Eric Schippers, likewise has not responded to a request for comment.

Who is enforcing safety protocols at PA horse tracks?

All of this raises the question, who is in charge of enforcement? It appears that that depends on who is pointing the finger.

Most wagering rules in the Keystone State are enforced by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB).

With policing PA casinos, a gaming regulation spokesman said oversight means being hands-on:

“The PGCB has staff on-site to observe all aspects of the gaming operation. With COVID-19, PGCB staff routinely check to make sure the casinos are following COVID-19 protocols and procedures. To date, all casinos have been working hard to follow health and safety procedures for both the patrons and employees.”

But the PGCB has no oversight over tracks. They fall under the oversight of the Department of Agriculture and the racing commission.

However, the Department of Agriculture had this to say of their responsibility for assuring safety at tracks:

“We have no authority or oversight here. Since masking is an order of Secretary Levine and the Department of Health, we defer to their response on this.”

And finally, this is the response from a spokeswoman from the Department of Health:

“Secretary of Health Dr. Levine put these orders into effect for the health and safety of Pennsylvanians and so businesses and local law enforcement can enforce [them] as necessary. The Pennsylvania Department of Health does not have oversight over horse racing or the facilities in which these events take place.”

So, with no state agency stepping up to assure health and safety enforcement, who is in charge of policing safety measures at tracks?

Seemingly, the answer is no one beyond each track’s operator.

Compliance varies at PA tracks

In recent weeks, a reporter for PlayPennsylvania has gone to tracks at Penn National in Wyomissing, Harrah’s Philadelphia in Chester (pictured, lead image) and Parx Racing in Bensalem. That’s half the tracks in the state.

Employees at each facility were following guidelines, but the compliance among patrons varied from strict to so-so.

At Harrah’s, the most compliant place, Anthony from Sea Isle City, NJ, was on his third trip in a week. He was strictly following mask and distancing guidelines.

“You got the itch, you gotta come,” he said of the health worries. “Thursday is the new Friday.”

“I’m not doing too good today,” he said, noting that he was down about $50. “But this is my entertainment. I may as well just give them my money at the door,” he said, sitting alone, a mask pulled over his nose.

And while he has a TVG streaming connection allowing for mobile horse betting from his home 90 minutes to the east, he comes to Harrah’s because “it’s funner to be here.”

More patrons’ noses were showing at Parx than other tracks. Several people attributed that to the locals’ attitude.

Mike Domanico, who runs the Trump Store at nearby Parx in Bensalem, attributes the noncompliance with mask-wearing to the relatively conservative makeup of the area no matter the political party affiliation.

“We leave it up to the customers. Most come in with one on, but ask and then take it off. I don’t tell them what to do,” he said.

Ironically, one of his hottest selling items is masks with Trump logos, which sell for $12.

“It is one of the first things they look for,” he said.

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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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