One week after a COVID-19 outbreak involving hundreds of Golden Gate Fields racetrack workers became public, many of the people who tested positive for the coronavirus are slated to return to work.
Golden Gate Fields tested the 500 or so people who work at the horse racing track in mid-November, and more than 200 of them came back positive for COVID-19, according to racetrack officials. The track has said 95% of those individuals had no symptoms and that this is likely what allowed the disease to spread so broadly.
On Wednesday, approximately 50 workers are headed back to the track and everyone who tested negative will be tested again, people familiar with the situation told Berkeleyside. (Under the city’s rules, which are in line with guidance from the Centers from Disease Control, asymptomatic people are allowed to end their isolation 10 days after a positive test.) Others who meet health guidelines will be allowed to return to work later this week, track officials told Berkeleyside.
In the past few days, Berkeleyside has spoken with eight “backside” workers who care for the horses, as well as Golden Gate Fields management, to learn how such a widespread outbreak might have happened and what the track has done to address it.
The 142-acre racetrack, which straddles the Berkeley-Albany border, in some ways exists in a world of its own. One former Golden Gate Fields worker described it as “a little village unto itself.” The property runs from Gilman Street north to Buchanan Street, and has prime frontage — and world-class views — along the San Francisco Bay. Many longtime residents recall learning to drive in the racetrack’s massive parking lot at Fleming Point.
According to the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB), 540 people work at Golden Gate Fields and about 370 of them live there. Officials have said more than 200 people — both those who live at the track and those who only work there — have tested positive for COVID-19. All agencies have declined to provide an exact number, citing privacy concerns.
The track itself has various employees who handle security and maintenance, but the majority of the workers at Golden Gate Fields are “horse people,” such as grooms, valets, exercise riders and the “hot walkers” who cool down the horses after they run. Some of these people are freelancers who float among multiple barns, while others are W-2 employees paid by a single trainer. Golden Gate Fields has 40 barns and 60-70 trainers at any given time.
One worker said the racetrack is a bit like a shopping mall, with a number of independent contractors or small business owners — the horse trainers — working within the larger structure that is overseen by Golden Gate Fields. That, in turn, is owned by a Canadian company called The Stronach Group, which owns several other tracks and describes itself as “a world-class entertainment and real estate development company with Thoroughbred horse racing at the core.”
Golden Gate Fields itself, which stables about 1,300 horses, is among the busiest racetracks in the state. In 2019, according to the CHRB’s annual report, Golden Gate Fields had about 9,200 starts, which is a measure of how many horses start each race.
Of the 10 racetracks governed by the CHRB, Golden Gate Fields was the one with the most starts that year, and made up 28% of California’s total.
Racetrack ‘patient zero’ remains a mystery
Earlier this year, when the coronavirus pandemic began, Golden Gate Fields closed to the public March 12 along with many other businesses in Alameda County. But racing itself continued until county officials got “a complaint from a concerned citizen” and intervened. On April 2, the county — which governs the racetrack — announced that “it was impossible to maintain proper social distancing” during races and said it informed the racetrack of its position.
Golden Gate Fields was “extremely cooperative and immediately responsive” and suspended racing that same day, the county said. After six weeks, however, with the permission of city and county public health officers, racing began again, allowing people to watch and bet remotely.
The track instituted a number of safety protocols, in line with internal and external health experts, to limit the spread of COVID-19, according to the city, track management and racetrack workers. They restricted access primarily to people working directly with the horses and other essential workers such as maintenance, cleaning staff and security. The track posted extensive bilingual signage informing people of the importance of hand-washing, social distancing and mask-wearing and set up hand-sanitizer stations throughout the property.
“We’ve been very conscious of the prevalence of this pandemic from the offset and we’ve worked extremely hard to keep people wearing masks and social distancing,” said Golden Gate Fields General Manager David Duggan. “There is signage throughout the facility. It’s absolutely everywhere.”
Long before the outbreak, Golden Gate Fields kept logs of anyone who comes into the racetrack and management has kept a close eye on things, Duggan said, with regular visits to the barns and elsewhere on the property to ensure everyone is following the rules. People who have had to travel out of the area this year were required to quarantine upon return and provide a clean bill of health before being allowed back on-site.
Meanwhile, across the nation, horse racing saw an increase in popularity and had greater visibility on major TV networks as most other sports had to put their seasons on hold amid the ongoing pandemic.
As the months went by, there may have been an isolated COVID-19 case or two at Golden Gate Fields, one backside worker told Berkeleyside, but there was no indication of broader problems brewing. (Several of the people who spoke with Berkeleyside this past week said they needed to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to talk about the track and are concerned about workplace reprisals, so Berkeleyside is not using their names.)
The situation began to shift in early November, multiple people said.
That’s when word started to spread about numerous positive cases within a single barn, one run by trainer Ed Moger, who has been at the racetrack since 1975. One longtime worker in the barn, a man in his 50s, was hospitalized and placed on a ventilator. Ultimately, about two-thirds of the 15 or so workers in Moger’s barn tested positive and were isolated from the rest of the community. But other cases were already popping up in different barns.
Duggan cautioned against speculation linking the outbreak to a single location and said the track identified “clusters in a couple of areas,” then worked closely with Berkeley Public Health to come up with a plan of action. Most people who tested positive had no outward symptoms, Duggan said.
The city told Berkeleyside on Tuesday that it has not identified a single point of origin for the racetrack outbreak, and said this was expected, given how the virus is able to spread silently among people without symptoms. A recent meta-analysis cited by the Centers for Disease Control found that 20%–75% of people who test positive for COVID-19 are asymptomatic. Berkeley Public Health is continuing to investigate the outbreak, however, and has found signs through an epidemiological analysis pointing to multiple “first cases” rather than just one.
Moger told Berkeleyside everyone in his barn was tested after the first worker got sick in early November and was placed on a ventilator. That led to nine more positive cases, he said. Testing expanded to 10 people in nearby barns, he said, and five more positive cases turned up. But hardly anyone had symptoms, he said.
Racing suspended amid Golden Gate Fields outbreak
As officials tested those who had been in contact with the man who was hospitalized — who is now doing better, workers told Berkeleyside — they found more and more COVID-19 cases. That led to the abrupt suspension of horse racing Friday, Nov. 13, amid reports of about two dozen positive cases.
The announcement to halt racing came just 20 minutes before the first post that day, said Golden Gate Fields trainer Ellen Lee Jackson, who raises racehorses at Victory Rose Thoroughbreds in Vacaville. The horses were already over on the track getting ready to run. Jackson had a horse in the race, so she got a phone call about the decision. She also got word that everyone from the track would be tested over the next two days for COVID-19.
That weekend, Nov. 14-15, workers from each barn were taken in groups to another part of the Golden Gate Fields property where medical staff at two tables had set up to swab them. In the days that followed, more than 200 cases were identified at the racetrack and Golden Gate Fields said it would suspend racing at least until the end of the month while continuing to monitor the outbreak and work closely with Berkeley Public Health.
Critics of the racing industry have called for an even longer suspension with an eye toward ending racing permanently amid concerns about the safety of both horses and workers. Rochelle Nason, a member of the Albany City Council, wrote in a recent opinion piece on Berkeleyside that not enough has been done to regulate track operations. She said racetrack conditions are “unacceptable.”
In October, the Berkeley City Council also sent a letter to the California Horse Racing Board to raise concerns about nearly two dozen horse fatalities at the track in 2020. According to the Paulick Report, a racing industry blog, Duggan wrote his own letter back to city leaders and said “Golden Gate is among the safest tracks in North America with catastrophic injury rates in both 2019 and 2020 well below national averages.”
Backside workers have repeatedly told Berkeleyside in the past few days that horses are extremely well cared for at Golden Gate Fields. The animals are “performance athletes” that do get injured and die at times due to the nature of the sport, the workers said, but their fatality rate pales in comparison with the number of pets that are euthanized across the nation on a regular basis.
Workers also expressed a deep love for their horses and the sport, and said most people outside the industry don’t have an accurate sense of how racehorses are treated.
“Those are my children. I love them more than I can say,” one backside worker told Berkeleyside.
“I really wish people could just come and see the animals, the care they get,” one trainer said. “It’s intimate.”
“Everyone was symptomless,” says racetrack rep
The recent spike in COVID-19 cases at Golden Gate Fields has been the largest known coronavirus outbreak at a horse racing track in California this year. In the spring, the Santa Anita Park racetrack near Pasadena — which is also owned by The Stronach Group — identified 38 cases. In July, there were 15 COVID-19 cases at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club north of San Diego.
Duggan, the Golden Gate Fields general manager, said the size of the GGF outbreak had been a blow.
“We had gone through such a long, long period when it wasn’t here,” he said. “Everybody was terribly disheartened when it appeared because we had put such a huge effort into compliance.”
The vast majority of the people who were infected in the outbreak were backside workers who live at the racetrack, a representative from Golden Gate Fields told the California Horse Racing Board during its meeting last week. He said the workers — 95% of whom were asymptomatic — had been taken to hotels, checked in on regularly and provided with two meals a day. The healthy workers who were still at the track were also fed twice daily.
“The reason that this got out of control, I believe, quickly is because everyone was symptomless for the most part,” the racetrack rep told the board. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure this does not get outside of the racetrack. We feel we’re in a good position from a containment standpoint.”
Backside workers said the scene at Golden Gate Fields last week as the outbreak unfolded was surreal, after everyone had been tested but results were pending. As results came in, it seemed like people were getting picked off one by one. One said it came to feel like a ghost town.
“It wasn’t even, ‘Did anybody get it?’ It was like: ‘How many people in your barn?'” one trainer said.
The trainer said one person told him about a barn that was down to just three workers. Another said everyone in their barn had been wiped out.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” he said. “Everybody I talked to had at least somebody in their barn who tested positive.”
He said the outbreak was costing everyone both time and money, and that he wanted to be mad at someone, including a few barns that had not followed safety protocols as closely as others. But ultimately, he said, he didn’t see the outbreak as anyone’s fault.
Another backside worker told Berkeleyside he was glad testing happened but said it should have started much sooner before the disease had a chance to spread.
“I think they should have done it a month ago. And I kind of think they should have been doing it all along,” the worker said. “I do not enjoy the tests, but I would rather have it done and be able to keep everyone safe, and be able to keep racing safely, than let this type of thing get out of control.”
Fabled Bay Area horseman hospitalized with COVID-19
Trainer Robert Hess, who spoke to Berkeleyside from the ICU on Monday, said he tested positive for COVID-19 last week. His wife has also tested positive. Initially, the 86-year-old thought he had a cold. He took some medicine and went to work at the track Saturday, Nov. 14, then got tested the next day along with hundreds of other racetrack people.
“I got lucky,” Hess told Berkeleyside. “My result came back first.”
On Tuesday night, Nov. 17, he got a phone call alerting him to his positive test. Hess talked to his doctor and was in the hospital within 20 minutes, he said. But he seemed to be doing all right, so he was discharged within a couple of days.
“That wasn’t so good,” Hess said. “Because then I had a relapse. I had to go back in again.”
Hess said his condition had improved since his initial relapse and that his most serious symptom this week has been chest congestion.
Hess, who raced horses in the ’60s and has been at Golden Gate Fields since 1971, currently has about a dozen horses at the track. He said he wasn’t sure how he contracted COVID-19 and dismissed theories about where the racetrack outbreak might have started as “just conjecture.”
Hess also said he thought the track had done a good job with putting safety protocols in place this year.
“I’m not always one to compliment them, but I think management did their share,” Hess said. “I don’t think they did anything wrong. Maybe, as people, we didn’t do our jobs.”
Hess said he has always been careful to wash his hands (“It’s a matter of common courtesy”), but said not everyone had been as diligent.
“Sometimes we don’t do everything we could,” Hess said. “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.”
Most cases have been asymptomatic or low-grade
People Berkeleyside spoke to said there is broad compliance at the track as far as wearing masks and other safety protocols, particularly among grooms and riders and other workers. But they said compliance among a few of the trainers has been less consistent.
The California Horse Racing Board, which has a large presence at the racetrack to ensure rules and regulations are followed, issued $100 fines to at least eight people who weren’t wearing face masks at Golden Gate Fields between Sept. 19 and Oct. 17, according to the CHRB website. They included several grooms, a veterinarian assistant, an exercise rider and two hot walkers. What the records do not show, however, is whether those individuals worked together in the same barns.
Since the outbreak, the track has bumped up temperature taking — from once a week to twice weekly — and has everyone who enters the property must fill out a health screening form.
One backside worker who lives off-site told Berkeleyside he also got a positive test last week. And he said he had been in Moger’s barn “a lot” earlier in the month. The worker said he hadn’t been able to pinpoint when he might have been exposed, but recalled nearly shaking hands with someone who later tested positive.
“We realized what we were doing and we fist-bumped instead,” he said.
When he was working at Golden Gate Fields before the outbreak, he said, everyone was diligently wearing masks. But multiple people were touching multiple horses. And workers generally don’t wear gloves or wash their hands between animals, he said.
When the worker first learned racing had been suspended and that two dozen people had tested positive for COVID-19, on Nov. 13, he wasn’t overly alarmed.
“I had my mask on and everybody else had masks on, so I was not really getting excited about it,” he said. “I didn’t realize it was going to balloon to the number that it did.”
A few days later, however, he started to feel “off”: He developed a slight fever and felt exhausted but described his symptoms otherwise as “benign.” Since then, he got his positive test results and has been staying home to rest and isolate. He said Kaiser had told him he could go back to work 10 days after his positive test result, but said he planned to give it a few more days just to play it safe.
The interview was briefly interrupted when someone stopped by unannounced to drop off soup. That had been happening a lot, he said.
“I have more food now than I normally would have had I been shopping for myself,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”
Overall, the worker said, the track has done a good job with safety protocols, but there is some room to improve. Some of the barns could be cleaner than they are. And the track should be taking the temperature of workers daily, not just twice a week, he said.
As far as his personal safety, he added, when he goes back to work, “gloves will probably be part of the equation.” But he wasn’t sure how feasible that would be for everyone else.
“I wish I had an answer,” he continued. “I don’t want to see racing closed down.”
Moger: “Everybody’s got to get it from somebody”
With so many of his workers out, trainer Moger said everyone has had to step up and pitch in to care for the horses.
“I’m 64 years old and I was in there working like I was 18,” he said.
Under normal circumstances, one groom is responsible for four to five horses. But, with so many people in isolation, that number has spiked. Some barns where everyone tested positive, Moger said, shipped horses out for care. Otherwise, everyone still working just had to do more.
One worker told Berkeleyside the hours have gotten longer for everyone, and that he is now cleaning stalls when it isn’t usually his job. Even the trainers have been cleaning stalls. Some of the horses, which generally get training daily, have only been getting it on alternating days. And riders are having to put saddles on their own horses, which is not the usual practice.
“It’s just really stressful,” the worker said. On top of the job stress, there’s the looming specter of the possibility of illness. The worker said he was just trying to stay clean, wear his mask and keep his distance from others as much as possible.
As of this week, many of the barns should get some relief as dozens of workers are allowed back to the track.
Aside from his longtime worker who was hospitalized, Moger said, for him it’s back to business as usual. His whole crew is already back to work because they were the first ones tested, he said. Moger himself tested negative in mid-November but will be tested again Wednesday as part of the next round of assessments.
He told Berkeleyside he knows many people at the track are saying the outbreak started in his barn. But he said he finds that unconvincing.
“Trust me: COVID did not start in my barn,” said Moger, adding that it actually originated in another country. “Everybody’s got to get it from somebody.”
Moger said he sees COVID-19 as akin to a bad flu and believes closing down business, locally and nationally, had been the wrong move. At Golden Gate Fields, he said, 40% of the backside workers got it, but most were never sick. He said it was only the testing that found the cases, and that forcing people without symptoms to isolate themselves had served no purpose. Better to let everyone get the disease, he said, so life can get back to normal.
The Centers for Disease Control says there are key differences between the flu and COVID-19, in that COVID-19 “seems to spread more easily than flu and causes more serious illnesses in some people.” It can also take longer to manifest and appears to be more contagious. Also, unlike the flu, there is no vaccine or any proven treatment for COVID-19.
The backside is “like a family,” workers say
Moger and others described the backside community as close-knit and supportive. Workers share kitchens, as well as other facilities, and often cook together and eat communal meals.
Those who live on-site stay in the tack rooms attached to the barns where their horses are. Various people described it as “dormitory-style” living, with a small bed or beds, a small fridge and perhaps a heater and electric cooking device. Workers, who are about 90% Hispanic, do not pay for rent or utilities. The only cost is the phone. Some people or couples have their own rooms, while others share with roommates.
“It’s a good way for a young family to get started and not have to spend a lot of money. And they love the horses or they wouldn’t have the job,” trainer Jackson said. “It’s almost like a family. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody kind of watches out for everybody else’s back.”
Moger said backside workers make minimum wage but often pick up overtime and can bring home at least $700 a week. They get medical and dental care, which he said is essentially free, at a racetrack clinic run by the California Thoroughbred Trainers. And Golden Gate Fields also has an on-site medical director who is an infectious disease expert.
Most people Berkeleyside spoke to — none of whom currently live on-site — said living and working conditions are better than people might imagine.
“People think that they’re living in squalor, but they’re not,” said one person who previously lived in a Golden Gate Fields tack room. “It’s not like a five-star hotel, but I’ve seen apartment buildings that are worse.”
But very few outsiders have actually seen those accommodations or even know they exist. Last week, many Berkeleyside readers were shocked to discover that hundreds of people actually live and work at Golden Gate Fields.
One trainer told Berkeleyside the nature of the insular community might be both what kept the racetrack community safe for so long and also allowed COVID-19 to penetrate it so deeply.
“It’s almost like we did such a good job in the beginning months and were able to prevent the spread because we’re so close-knit,” he said. “On the opposite side, once you’ve boarded up all the doors and windows to keep the zombies out, you can’t get out those same doors and windows when the zombies get in.”
Racetrack amped up cleaning of shared spaces
No one has disputed that, whatever the conditions at Golden Gate Fields, workers are often in close quarters where social distancing isn’t entirely possible. Some people’s work takes them to multiple barns and there are also married couples who work in different barns but live together in a single tack room. So there are many ways for germs to spread.
Not every barn has its own restrooms, so workers from multiple barns congregate to use those facilities. Management has stepped up bathroom cleaning amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic; it now happens three times a day. Some said the bathrooms are clean, with well-stocked soap dispensers, while others told Berkeleyside there’s room for improvement and that people sharing toilets and showers, and brushing their teeth around the same sinks, is bound to cause problems.
In the barns, people are in close proximity as they care for the horses, prepare them for riders and give them medical treatment. That means there are usually multiple people around a single horse to ensure their safety so close to the powerful animals.
“When you’re doing something to horses, somebody is holding onto them,” the anonymous worker who tested positive for COVID-19 told Berkeleyside. “There’s no way to be 6 feet away.”
He said, at times, grooms are “kind of on top of each other” in the tack rooms which, at about 10 by 10 feet, can be more crowded than they should be.
“A lot of times, multiple people live in there,” he said. “It’s just like picking fruit or vegetables: The conditions for the help in all these situations should always be better than they are.”
He continued: “It is not Golden Gate Fields. It’s the state of California or any place that employs immigrant help where they can shove everybody into a small space. Anytime you do that, it’s going to leave it open for infection to spread.”
One former track worker described getting in touch with Berkeley Public Health in April to put the racetrack on the city’s radar. The worker was concerned about living and working conditions at the track and told the city it would be important to monitor it.
“I warned of the potential seriousness this one business could pose and was shocked when they were allowed to reopen so soon and banning the public as mitigation,” the former worker said. “The backside is a rough place where strange jargon, odd characters and huge impressive horses make, for an outsider, an intimidating milieu. This might be why they can operate as they do, with so little oversight. Ten sets of hands might touch one warm sweaty horse before the jockey even mounts. Social distancing is impossible to achieve considering the minutiae of a race day.”
Questions raised about COVID-19 response
As the Golden Gate Fields outbreak grew, Moger and others have asked whether it might have made more sense to let people isolate on-site, rather than transport them to area hotels and motels where the disease might spread.
“At least, when they were in the backside enclosure, they’re quarantined,” said trainer Jackson. “They eat there, they live there, they work there. And so, by removing them, they’re actually exposing all those cities.”
Trainer Jackson said, in the early days of the outbreak, the wife of one of her grooms tested positive for COVID-19. It was among the track’s first known positive tests. The couple just stayed in their tack room in isolation and friends and neighbors brought them food from the Golden Gate Fields cafe.
“That made a whole lot more sense,” she said.
The city has said it had been important to isolate people away from the track to give them access to their own restrooms and food apart from others due to the highly contagious nature of COVID-19.
The last week or so raised even more questions for Jackson, she said, in terms of the local response. Everyone who was tested Nov. 14-15 was allowed to continue working together until their test results came in. Some people didn’t get results until Thursday, Nov. 19, so some of them were working together in close quarters for the better part of a week before those with COVID-19 were split off for isolation.
And one of her grooms got a positive test Friday, she said. He was told he could work all day but would have to isolate himself after his shift. The guidance had struck her as unwise, Jackson said.
The track says it has followed all safety guidance from public health experts, including Berkeley Public Health.
Jackson and other trainers also wondered if calling off racing had really been necessary. Nearly all the same people who are involved with racing are also involved with daily training, they said. The jockeys themselves are not allowed to enter the property until racing starts again but, otherwise, it’s essentially the same crews working and living together, she said.
Backside workers said there could have been more robust and timely communication from the track about the outbreak and other COVID-19 developments at Golden Gate Fields.
“I would like honesty and I would like to know when somebody tests positive in what barn,” one worker said. “Not a week later. I’d like to know about it when it happens.”
Duggan told Berkeleyside the track had complied with everything experts had advised to keep the community safe. When asked whether, looking back, he might have done anything differently, he paused.
“I think we were always learning but this is such a different animal. We’ll have to take stock of the situation afterwards,” he said. “I believe we had very stringent protocols in place, updated them regularly and monitored everything as closely as we could. It’s almost impossible to identify it when there aren’t any visible signs of its occurrence.”
After the outbreak, what’s next for Golden Gate Fields?
With 50 workers slated to return to work Wednesday, conditions may be getting back to normal. But that will depend, in part, on how the next round of testing goes. Trainer Jackson said the results are supposed to come in more quickly this time around.
She also said the very few people who had been resistant to wearing masks until recently have now begun doing so since the outbreak.
Trainer Moger told Berkeleyside he’s fine with getting tested again. He said he wonders whether many of the people who tested negative in mid-November might have already had COVID-19, perhaps in the spring. He said he’s praying the positive numbers don’t grow.
“I hope they don’t come up with 100 more,” Moger said. “That would be bad.”
But whatever happens, he said, he’s not overly concerned.
“We can all get it,” Moger said, “and then go on our merry way because we’ve all had it already.”
Jackson said she’d like to see widespread antibody testing to get a better sense of how far the coronavirus might already have truly spread in the Golden Gate Fields community in the wake of outbreak. Her hope is that this would allow operations to return to normal sooner.
For now, everyone is in a bit of a holding pattern. Some backside workers said they’ve heard racing will begin again in early December. But Duggan, the Golden Gate Fields general manager, said nothing has been decided about that. He told Berkeleyside he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the worst of it may be over.
“Our top priority at the moment is to make sure that everybody recovers and that everybody is satisfied that the storm has passed,” he said Tuesday night. “Our primary focus at the moment is the welfare of the community. We’re all hopeful we can all get through this.”