The CEO of the New York Racing Association, O’Rourke hadn’t yet marked his first anniversary in the position when he was thrust into a maelstrom of a public health emergency, a financial crisis, and zero certainty about the future, both immediate and long-term.
On March 7, Aqueduct Racetrack hosted the G3 Gotham Stakes, a Kentucky Derby qualifier. In the paddock that day, hugs were eschewed for elbow bumps as early concerns about Covid-19 were seeping into public awareness; five days later, such protocols were no longer a concern because NYRA announced on-site customers would not be permitted at the racetrack in Queens, which is six miles from Elmhurst Hospital, a facility that made headlines in late March because six patients had died from the virus in a 24-hour period.
Elmhurst’s zip code had one of the highest infection and death rates in New York City, and, on March 19, the virus hit the backstretch at Belmont Park, leading NYRA to announce the immediate and indefinite suspension of racing.
“That first month,” said O’Rourke, “our main concern was, ‘How do we handle people that are unwell?’ We had to get people tested, set up isolation dorms, make sure that people had food and clean clothes. And I’m proud of how we handled it. We worked daily with the New York Race Track Chaplaincy and Backstretch Employee Service Team.”
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