Coronavirus can’t keep fans from going to Nebraska racetrack

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GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — Jerry Moritz has been attending horse races at Fonner Park regularly since 1970 and almost every day in recent years.

The track in central Nebraska was one of the few sporting venues in the country open to fans Saturday, and the 73-year-old from Grand Island wasn’t going to let concerns over the new coronavirus stop him from going.

“If we had a dozen people in the hospital here and two or three died, then I would probably back off,” Moritz said, sipping beer out of a plastic cup. “I feel like some people probably got it and don’t even know it and are already over it.”

No cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Hall County, where Fonner Park is located, and that was part of the reason track CEO Chris Kotulak decided to allow fans for the weekend racing programs.

Kotulak said the clubhouse and other viewing areas are being cleaned with increased frequency. Leaflets reminding employees and guests to practice good hygiene were distributed on counters and tabletops in the clubhouse and other viewing areas. As an added precaution, Kotulak visited the jockeys’ room Saturday morning to make sure none of the riders was experiencing any symptoms associated with the new coronavirus.

Later, jockeys voted not to race because of dangerous track conditions caused by a snowstorm that moved through the area. After it was announced that racing was canceled, about 50 people stayed at Fonner Park to wager on races simulcast from other tracks.

Fonner has been a major economic driver in Grand Island, population 40,000, since opening in 1954. The track employs 60 full-time workers and more than 200 seasonal part-timers.

Kotulak said he would have no problem with closing the races to fans if advised to do so by health officials.

Joe Brown of Grand Island, at a table in the enclosed grandstand doing some handicapping with a friend, said he wasn’t overly concerned about getting sick even though he’s 63 and has underlying health issues.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the virus.

“I’m that part of the population that wants to worry about it,” he said. “But I kind of figured I haven’t heard of anything around Grand Island yet, so maybe now will be the last time we get out in a group like this and have some fun.”

His friend, Ron Tenski, said his wife encouraged him to enjoy a day at the races, and he also got the green light from his doctor.

“I had my physical yesterday,” said Tenski, 68, of Grand Island, “and he said don’t be afraid to be out and about.”

Other tracks across the country continued running races with no fans in the stands. Laurel Park in Maryland was business as usual in the paddock and on the track, and announcer Dave Rodman’s calls echoed off the empty building.

Someone could be overheard in the paddock saying, “It’s so weird when they’re running and nobody’s cheering.”

Jockey Forest Boyd, who won the day’s second race, said she didn’t notice horses handling the situation any differently. She was able to keep her focus as a rider.

“It’s a little eerie,” Boyd said. “But luckily we’re all out here doing our job and keeping the economy going.”

Instead of the roar of fans, individual owners and trainers could be heard yelling for their horses while races were underway. Trainer Lacey Gaudet slammed the rail in joy after jockey Alex Cintron rode Jefazo to a victory.

“It’s very weird not having fans out here,” Gaudet said. “I think it’s going to be a learning curve, I guess. I don’t really know. It’s the first time that we’ve really had to deal with this.”