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Return of some fans to Belmont Stakes provides another benchmark in pandemic recovery

Employees watch a race during the Belmont Stakes

Employees watch a race during the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont in June 2020. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

It was a year ago when the stands at Belmont Park lay dormant on its biggest day of the year.

The Belmont Stakes was the first major professional sporting event welcomed back to New York State after the start of the pandemic, though the parameters were very, very different then: Stakes day, generally a jubilant, dizzying experience, was instead reduced to its barest elements — horses, racing, with nary a fan in sight. And for many — trainers, jockeys, owners, racing aficionados and park workers — the loss was palpable.

So, though this year’s Belmont Stakes won’t be a full return to its regular pomp, June 5 will still mark a gigantic benchmark in its recovery. There will be people in the stands — about 11,000 to 12,000 of them, according to Pat McKenna, director of communications for the New York Racing Association — and they are fully expected to be loud. There will be vaccinated and unvaccinated sections, with those in vaccinated sections allowed to not wear masks or be socially distant. There will be concessions and champagne and probably some very wide-brimmed hats.

"It feels as if we’re turning a page and with each event you see, whether it’s the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, Belmont Park with the return of fans on May 1 or, in a few days, 10 or 12,000 people here for the Belmont Stakes on June 5, that demonstrates the progress being made in New York and nationally against a virus that shut down live events, live sports across the state, throughout the country, for the better part of a year," McKenna said. "I think what we’ve all learned over the last year, year and a half, is that sports are not the same without the energy and enthusiasm and excitement that only the fans can bring."

In a regular year (remember those?), the Belmont attracts around 90,000 fans, and that number can get even higher if there’s a Triple Crown in play. This year, though, fans won’t be permitted to walk up and buy tickets, but will instead be required to purchase in advance.

Proof of vaccination can come in the form of a vaccination card or the state-sanctioned Empire Pass app, and the full course of vaccination must have occurred 14 days before race day. Unvaccinated fans will not have to show proof of a negative COVID test, though they will be required to mask up and socially distance. They will only be allowed to remove masks while eating and drinking at their seats. All fans will need to register a temperature below 100.4 degrees.

And though fan attendance opened up on May 1 at Belmont Park, this will be its most-attended event in well over a year, McKenna said.

"I think it means a great deal to turn the page on the pandemic, to welcome fans back in big numbers on Saturday to everyone involved in the racing community," he added. "I think that in the midst of focusing on running a successful event, focusing on running a really, really exciting race day, there’s also certainly a moment of reflection of what we’ve been though over the last year. I think these are milestones that mark the passage of time for generations of sports fans and they’ll be able to be back here at Belmont Park Saturday is significant."

WHAT TO KNOW

*Fans attending the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of horse racing's Triple Crown, won’t be permitted to walk up and buy tickets on Saturday, June 5, but will instead be required to purchase in advance.

*Attendance is expected to be between 11,000 and 12,000 spectators.

There will be vaccinated and unvaccinated sections, with those in vaccinated sections allowed to not wear masks or socially distance.

*Proof of vaccination can come in the form of a vaccination card or the state-sanctioned Empire Pass app, and the full course of vaccination must have occurred 14 days before race day.

*Unvaccinated fans will not have to show proof of a negative COVID test, though they will be required to mask up and socially distance. They will only be allowed to remove masks while eating and drinking at their seats.

*All fans will need to register a temperature below 100.4 degrees.

New York Sports