The news that 200 workers at Golden Gate Fields have tested positive for COVID-19 is shocking. However, for those who followed the issue of horse racing in the pandemic during the spring of this year, it is not so much of a surprise as it is the materialization of a grimly predictable outcome.

The racetrack’s response to the pandemic has been troubling from the start. Alameda County health authorities first issued the shelter in place order closing non-essential businesses on March 16. Most businesses in the county  — and Berkeley — complied promptly. However, Golden Gate Fields continued to hold horse races, only without spectators. Streaming video from the paddock during these races (like this one on March 29) showed maskless and gloveless race personnel standing close together in conversation, or at work together on horses.

On April 2, the Alameda County Health Department told officials at Golden Gate Fields to immediately shut down since horse racing was a non-essential business. However, the “pause” in racing did not end the risk. With hundreds of workers living in close quarters on the site to care for the horses awaiting the resumption of racing, sharing many facilities and much equipment, a high risk of transmission remained — even if the spreader activity in the paddock ceased.

The billionaire Stronach family, owners and operators of Golden Gate Fields through The Stronach Group, argued that without the income from racing, terrible things would happen to people and horses. The Stronach Group’s state director for horse racing told the state Horse Racing Board in late March: “I’m not trying to be alarmist.  I can assure you if we don’t keep everybody together and safe we’re going to end up with a bunch of homeless people and a bunch of animal issues.”

Following the closure, Golden Gate Fields issued a press release declaring it would “continue to work with authorities to familiarize them with the protocols which have been put in place to protect the health and safety of those who work with the horses and the horses themselves.” To safety advocates, it is a red flag when a regulated entity says it only needs to educate a regulator, not change its practices — especially when clear violations of health and safety orders have been documented just a few days before.

Yet for whatever reason, the health authorities allowed racing to resume less than two months later, on May 14, thereby keeping the workers and horses “together and safe.”  According to the general manager of Golden Gate Fields “We had ongoing dialogue with them for quite some time, even before we were closed down. Our plan is robust and very comprehensive, and they were satisfied enough and they deemed us a low-risk business.”

The idea that a horse track’s backstretch environment could be a “low risk” workplace seems ludicrous on its face. And now 200 workers are infected.

Golden Gate Fields has three strikes against it: its continuance of racing in March in spite of the shelter in place, its failure to implement protective protocols in the paddock before public health authorities intervened in April, and now this huge outbreak of disease.

The time has come to end the current meet (i.e. cancel the racing that is now scheduled for Dec. 3 through 13th). The next meet, which normally begins on December 26th, should be deferred until the pandemic is clearly under sufficient control that the backstretch is again a safe place for workers.

Will this end horse racing permanently at Golden Gate Fields?  That will be up to The Stronach Group. If it happens, there will be a challenging transition for the industry and its workers, and for Albany which derives significant tax revenue from this activity.  It is always hard on workers and communities when a particular economic activity reaches the end of its lifespan, and we must be prepared to help workers and our institutions adjust to the new reality.

As hard as this may be, our community needs to reflect on whether horse racing is something that we want to keep in our midst. Even before the pandemic, the reported living and working conditions of the backstretch workers were unacceptable.   Healthy young horses die terrible deaths in the ordinary course of racetrack operations. And a large amount of recreationally zoned land remains devoted to a legacy gambling industry of little interest to the local community – one that has been slowly dying for decades.

Local elected officials lack jurisdiction in these matters. Our public health officials handle the pandemic, while the California Horse Racing Board, the mission of which includes “promoting horse racing,” handles the regulation of the industry.

But it is certainly time for the Berkeley and Albany communities to demand to have input. We should proactively ask the legislature and the governor to take action  — first, to assure that public health is better protected than it has been in this situation, and second, to give our residents a voice in whether the horse racing industry should continue to enjoy state protection from community concerns in its operations here.

Rochelle Nason is a member of the Albany City Council and former mayor of that city. 
Rochelle Nason is a member of the Albany City Council and former mayor of that city.