Fans at the Derby? What are you thinking?!

Six months into the coronavirus pandemic, one would expect our elected leaders to have a better understanding of how to protect us.

Unfortunately, they seem more lost today than they were when it started. Even our reassuring Gov. Andy Beshear seems lost — stuck between choosing proven safety protocols and a Trumpian perspective that the virus will just go away.

How can you explain Beshear’s exhortations that rules and protocols are gravely serious, but then he allows the big money-making events to go on?

Gatherings of 10 people or more are prohibited, but a national street rod convention can converge on the Fairgrounds, drawing over 12,000 cars from around the country; restaurants can operate at 50% of capacity, but the Oldham County Fair was open to the public… rides, shows, competitions — everything but the agriculture, floral and arts exhibits .

Is Beshear ignoring what he knows needs to be done just to appease the freedom-first nuts who think wearing a mask is akin to taking away their guns? 

What about the Derby? 

Churchill Downs announced a plan that will allow 23,000 fans to attend under enhanced health and safety measures that include a temperature check at the gate, a mask requirement and a “Healthy at the Track” bag with personal hand sanitizer, mask and stylus to operate the self-serve betting kiosks.

Sounds like a party!

“At its essence, the Kentucky Derby is as much about the people, the fans, the community and our traditions as it is about the horse race itself,” wrote Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen in a Courier Journal op-ed. 

His hypocritical, community-first message ignores the fact that he and the track are inviting thousands of people to Louisville for an entire weekend. The safety protocols  won’t protect the rest of us while visitors are here for the race. Carstanjen is doing everything he can to salvage something, anything from his golden goose — in the interests of Churchill Downs and its stockholders, not the community. We’re watching the NBA, MLB, NHL and PGA all play without fans, and Carstanjen expects us to believe that Churchill  can more safely manage a Derby crowd? Golf won’t allow fans, outside, across properties spanning at least 150 acres or more.

Why would I be so cynical about Churchill’s motives? Carstanjen cited the “Greatly reduced guest capacity … across our nearly 200 acre facility.” We know Bill isn’t being genuine in his community-first PR pitch because he knows damn well that the 23,000 fans will not be strewn across that property. They will be in boxes and suites. 

But, in his defense, it’s not his job to worry about the health and safety of the community outside of the track. It’s Beshear’s job to look after us.

When the Indy 500 announced it would run without fans, that should have been the signal — or political cover — Beshear needed to make the call on behalf of Churchill Downs: There will be no fans at The Derby this year. 

So, what’s the most important reason, in the public’s interest, for the Derby to run with fans? The economic boost, right? Over $400 million in economic activity, locally, according to Louisville Tourism.

Well, a crowd of 23,000 is a measly 15% of last year’s 150,000 fans. On top of that, restaurants will be at 50% capacity and bars will operate under early closing times. 

The worst part is: Of those who would insist on coming to The Derby — “I ain’t afraid of no virus, I’m going to have my fun and bourbon” — some will bring the virus, and they will leave it here when they go home. Add it all up: Allowing this reduced-fan Derby could end up costing the city and state more than the meager economic activity Churchill is chasing. Run the Derby just like the Belmont ran it — without fans.

The Big Ten and Pac 12 football conferences have canceled their football seasons, and pressure is on the ACC, SEC and others.

What?! No college football?!

Perhaps then, once the sacred cow of American sports is canceled, the reassuring Beshear will return. 

This isn’t a hard call to make: Beshear needs to announce that no fans will be allowed at the Derby, so don’t bother coming to Louisville.