Bystanders at Golden Gate Fields racetrack in 2010. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Golden Gate Fields has agreed to put more than 100 racetrack workers who have not tested positive for COVID-19 into a 14-day off-site quarantine in response to new guidance this week from the city of Berkeley.

The city told Berkeleyside more than 100 new COVID-19 cases have been identified through recent testing, leaving just 200 or so racetrack workers, out of 540 total, who have not tested positive in the recent outbreak, which was identified at the track several weeks ago. Another round of testing, with results still pending, took place at the end of last week.

Over the weekend, the racetrack community also had its first coronavirus fatality, as 86-year-old trainer Bob Hess Sr. succumbed to the disease Saturday morning.

“There is a huge outbreak happening and it’s still tearing through that facility,” city of Berkeley spokesman Matthai Chakko told Berkeleyside this week. “We have to take urgent action to stop it.”

Several trainers at Golden Gate Fields told Berkeleyside in recent days that they are worried about the impacts of the city’s new rules, which they say will impose serious economic hardships when they are already struggling. The new rules could lead to job losses and fewer horses at the racetrack, they said, which will make longterm economic recovery difficult.

They also said they can’t see how it makes sense to remove more than 100 seemingly healthy people without positive tests from the property and that it feels like the city is punishing those who have followed the rules and, so far, apparently managed to stay safe.

Golden Gate Fields in 2010. Photo: Emilie Raguso

COVID-19 symptoms can take 14 days to show up

The city said the changes are necessary to protect workers as cases have continued to spike. In November, more than 200 cases were initially identified in the outbreak. The discovery last week of 100 new cases was a tipping point. Of the reported 540 workers at the site, only 200 have not tested positive for COVID-19.

“Whether the track did or didn’t do everything perfectly, that’s not something we’d get into,” Chakko said. “What’s clear is that the environment that was there was leading to widespread infections even with the protections that have been in place.”

In response to the most recent wave of positive tests, the city of Berkeley and Golden Gate Fields hammered out a deal over the past few days in an effort to stamp out infections. This has been particularly challenging because it can take up to 14 days for symptoms to develop after an exposure.

The racetrack agreed to remove 126 of the 197 workers who have not tested positive off-site to quarantine for 14 days, Chakko said. Those who test positive will also be removed. Accommodations will be covered by the racetrack. During this time, workers are only allowed to return to Golden Gate Fields for testing, which will now take place twice a week, in line with state guidelines.

The other 71 workers who have not tested positive have been deemed essential to care for the horses and will be allowed to continue their duties, Chakko said. But they will have to agree to stepped-up requirements related to protective gear and social distancing.

Horses lining up at Golden Gate Fields in 2010. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Until recently, the track said it had about 1,300 horses at Golden Gate Fields, but multiple trainers have told Berkeleyside they have been losing some of their client horses as the suspension of racing that began in November amid the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak has dragged on.

Workers who remain on-site will be required to wear N95 masks as well as face shields and gloves, Chakko said. The racetrack has stores of that equipment, he added, but the city has also been helping to provide some of it.

Chakko said he could not say when racing at the track might resume, but that Golden Gate Fields would have to bring its positivity rate closer to the city’s, which is currently at 1.71% as measured over the past four weeks.

David Duggan, Golden Gate Fields general manager, told Berkeleyside on Tuesday that the racetrack will “continue to work with Berkeley Public Health and follow their guidance.”

As of this week, the city of Berkeley has reported more than 1,300 positive COVID-19 cases in total this year, with the highest rate of spread in the city’s Hispanic community. Statewide, nearly 60% of COVID-19 cases and 48% of deaths have been reported in the Hispanic community, which makes up nearly 40% of California’s population.

As of last week, the vast majority of the track’s COVID-19 cases has been asymptomatic. The track has put that figure at 95% or more. But several people have been hospitalized with serious symptoms and at least one trainer remains in the hospital as of this week.

In recent days, as word of the new city guidelines spread among members of the Golden Gate Fields community, trainers told Berkeleyside the apparent mandate to remove people without symptoms or positive tests had left them scratching their heads. (Berkeleyside is not naming them because they are not authorized to speak on behalf of the racetrack and some of them were concerned about repercussions for doing so.)

“I’m confused,” one trainer said. “It’s devastating. People are losing their jobs. Horses are leaving. The owners can’t afford to keep them here without income from racing.”

The trainer said he had already had to sell one horse and that some of his client horses were moving elsewhere, either to a farm or another racetrack, until racing can resume. Once horses leave, they rarely return, he said.

“I’ve been contemplating all day,” he told Berkeleyside on Sunday, “do I go somewhere else? Do I send my horses to the farm? There’s no racing on the horizon. It’s just frustrating.”

Golden Gate Fields in 2010. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Trainers also said they are concerned city officials don’t understand the economics of the business and are making decisions that will have lasting negative impacts on racing at Golden Gate Fields. The more horses that leave, the fewer workers are needed. Employees who live at the track — and there are hundreds of them — are doubly vulnerable because, if they lose their jobs they also lose their housing.

“I’m trying to keep surviving and the health department, who is getting paid, is making all these rule changes,” the trainer said. “They don’t realize the effect it has on people.”

Trainers also continued to emphasize to Berkeleyside how well cared for the horses are, and said those expenses add up, particularly when there is no money coming in. They also said they hope officials do not use the situation to clamp down on an industry that has long been criticized by animal welfare activists and others who are already opposed to the sport.

Golden Gate Fields trainer: “I’ve been knocked sideways”

Trainers also said it feels like the city is penalizing them with the new rules, particularly as things seemed to be getting back to normal with more than 200 workers who tested positive previously coming back to work.

“I think the health department has played from behind with their decisions,” a second trainer told Berkeleyside. “They’ve been playing from behind from day one.”

He said racetrack management had been working day and night to keep workers updated with developments, to deliver food to sick people who have been isolating in hotels and much more.

“It’s just a bad deal,” he said. “But I don’t think we’ve been helped by any outside agency.”

He noted that official test results have been taking five to seven days to get back. Golden Gate Fields workers now take two tests at a time: a quick test that gives results in about 15 minutes as well as a second test, sent to the lab, that is more reliable but has a longer response time.

“You got people that were negative on a quick test on a Friday and, a week later, we’re in line to get the next round of tests when they come back positive,” he said. “They didn’t get the results until they’re in line waiting for the next round of testing.”

He continued: “I don’t know how you can get on top of something when you have a delay like that.”

He also said he wasn’t sure about the science or precedent behind removing all the people from the site who have not tested positive. He said it felt like the city was grasping at straws to come up with untested solutions.

“These decisions may sound good to somebody somewhere, but the time to make a change has passed,” the trainer said. “The ship sailed at that point when you found out you had that many positives. Three weeks later, what’s going to happen?”

Said another trainer: “I’m not sure why they’re trying to remove the negatives. It seems like the chicken is already out of the egg. I’ve been knocked sideways once a week for the last three or four weeks. It’s already a struggle. The owners are like, ‘What’s going on?’ It’s a lot of pressure, on top of trying to stay safe.”

Two housing units toward the Gilman Street side of Golden Gate Fields. Housing at the racetrack is attached to the barns so workers can be close to the horses they care for. Nov. 20, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Multiple trainers and backside workers also said they believe that many of the people who have not tested positive may already have had COVID-19 earlier in the year. Widespread antibody testing has not been done, however, so everyone without a positive test is essentially in the same boat and is considered by the city to be at risk for infection and spread.

Golden Gate Fields has been doing weekly tests over the past couple of weeks but is now stepping up the schedule to twice-weekly, as per the new agreement with the city of Berkeley.

Chakko, the city spokesman, said the Berkeley Public Health department had been working closely with the track to make sure testing kits and materials have been available from the state, even though it is ultimately the employer’s responsibility to provide testing.

Chakko said the decision to remove people from the site who have not tested positive is in line with public health rules to require the close contacts of people who did test positive to quarantine, even if they have no symptoms.

State inspection of Golden Gate Fields now underway

The Golden Gate Fields outbreak has drawn increased scrutiny from state and local regulators in recent weeks. On Nov. 23, Cal/OSHA’s Oakland District Office opened a “referral inspection” to look into the issues related to COVID-19 at the racetrack. Cal/OSHA said no further information could be provided until the inspection is complete.

Trainers have told Berkeleyside that state labor investigators have been calling each of them to ensure they are following workplace rules amid the outbreak.

Last week Monday, city of Berkeley public health officials spent hours at Golden Gate Fields with officials from the racetrack who have since installed additional hand-washing stations and portable toilets around the complex, which spans 142 acres on the Berkeley-Albany border.

The next day, members of grassroots community group Latinos Unidos de Berkeley asked the Berkeley City Council to send a letter to the California Horse Racing Board, the body that regulates the racetrack industry, “to insist that it use its power to investigate and immediately remediate the workplace conditions that permitted more than 200 workers to become infected with COVID- 19 at the racetrack.”

In response to those concerns, Mayor Jesse Arreguín agreed during the council meeting to send that letter to the board and other state legislators who have the authority to investigate.

Racetrack workers have estimated to Berkeleyside that approximately 80% of the people who work and live in the “backside” of the track are monolingual Spanish speakers.

Angela Gallegos-Castillo, Latinos Unidos co-chair, told Berkeleyside the group has been working with the city throughout the year to help inform members of the Spanish-speaking community about how to stay safe amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The next Spanish language COVID-19 webinar from Latinos Unidos comes Sunday. (Click to view larger.)

Those efforts have included monthly Zoom webinars, including the next one, coming Sunday, regarding elders and COVID-19 prevention.

Gallegos-Castillo said Latinos Unidos became aware of the racetrack pandemic through Berkeleyside articles and was concerned to see a photograph of what appeared to show outdated safety signage.

She said the group sought to involve local officials in the response to ensure workers are protected.

“We just want to make sure all of the proper authorities are notified, not just for the safety of the workers but for the whole community,” Gallegos-Castillo said.

“We know that people don’t live in isolation. People move around. They may work there but not live there,” she added. “We want to make sure every possible resource is activated to help this community.”

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...