What a COVID-Mindful Derby Looks Like From Inside Churchill Downs

Derby at Churchill Downs will look different right from the gate this year — the first with spectators since the pandemic started.

At admission, every other gate will be open, and masked guests will scan their own ticket at the turnstile. They’ll be administered a medical screening, including a temperature check. Any guest with a temperature in excess of 100 degrees, or with other COVID symptoms, will not be allowed to enter. 

Past that point, you’ll be greeted by signs and floor decals throughout the facility indicating proper social distancing and directing spectators where they’re allowed to walk.

These are just some of the COVID safety protocols instituted by Churchill Downs, which will dictate everything from how far apart seating will be to the way food will be sold. The track is operating at 50% capacity for its reserved seats, totaling 30,000 guests, and 25-30% capacity for the infield, which translates to up to 18,000 additional spectators. 

Churchill Downs has assembled a 100-person safety compliance team to “gently remind” guests to follow the rules. Although, if they don’t, “repeat offenders” will be escorted from the property without a refund. 

Despite the wide-ranging list of precautions, Churchill Downs Senior Director of Media Services Darren Rogers said that he thinks the traditional Derby experience will remain largely unchanged — something he couldn’t say last year. 

“By not having fans at the Derby last year in 2020, it was about 1,500 owners and trainers, and they had some select media that were on hand. That was totally unusual and it never felt like Derby,” he said. “We know that the number of guests that are choosing to be here at Churchill Downs are wanting to have a good time, and the Derby is about fun … This race has been run here for 147 years. So, all the program elements that people have come to enjoy, they will still be there.”

Churchill Downs’ COVID safety plan has been approved by the state government and is in compliance with local guidelines, as well. Although, public officials have not stopped preaching caution. Gov. Andy Beshear said he plans to attend this year after skipping last year. 

“This is an event that if we follow all the rules can be done safely,” he said at his April 22 COVID briefing. “And it’s incumbent on Churchill to enforce them, but it’s incumbent on everyone that’s there to do so as well. I hope people view this as a partnership for something that is so important for this state. The Kentucky Derby is a time when the eyes of the entire world look to us, and we can show them something positive.”

As of last Thursday, Mayor Greg Fischer had not decided if he would be attending the Derby, said his spokesperson Jean Porter. 

Louisville’s Assistant Director of Metro Public Health & Wellness Nicholas Hart said that there is no guarantee that COVID cases in Louisville won’t go up because of the Derby and public health officials are still recommending that the public avoid large gatherings, but he also said that Churchill Downs’ safety plan is “robust.”

“There is a risk of an increase in cases when we do invite large groups like this,” he said. “And I think that a lot of risk is reduced by some of the outstanding activities and precautionary methods that Churchill’s putting in place.”

Beshear has said that all people planning to attend the Kentucky Derby should get vaccinated, although Churchill Downs is not making it a requirement to enter. 

Churchill Downs has been working on its safety plan for “well over a year,” said Rogers. 

The organization started crafting it before the Derby last year, which was eventually delayed until September. The state government approved it, Rogers said, but Churchill Downs eventually decided to shut down the race to spectators, because COVID case numbers weren’t improving. In November, the track opened up for its first meet with spectators and has been hosting “consistent events with a limited number of attendees” since, said Rogers. 

At the Kentucky Derby, reserved seats, which include food and drink, will be open in a “checkerboard style,” meaning if you’re in a seat or box, there won’t be anyone to the left or right of you or directly in front or behind. There will also be indoor “premium dining areas” for some guests, operating restaurant-style at 60% capacity. The all-inclusive format has raised the price point for reserved Kentucky Derby tickets. Currently, the cheapest reserved-seating tickets available are $417 for first-turn bleacher seats. 

During Beshear’s April 9 COVID briefing, the governor said he had remaining concerns about Churchill Downs’ infield and was still talking with the organization about those. 

The 22-acre, outdoor infield is known for being a crowded and drunken party — like the rest of the Derby, really, but without the pretense of gentility. At first, Churchill Downs held off on selling general admission tickets for the infield, but on April 5, it announced that it would be offering them for $80. 

“It was very important for us to offer an affordable ticket option to the community,” said Rogers, “but we also had to be patient, and we had to watch the number improve.”

This year, general admission infield ticket holders will not have access to Churchill Downs’ front side. The tickets are also not all-inclusive. Instead, concession stands will be open for those ticket holders. All food items will be wrapped and covered, and beverages will be served in single-use containers.

A compliance officer team will be stationed within the infield, although there will be enforcers throughout Churchill Downs, said Rogers. When it comes to breaking up groups that are not social distancing, Rogers said that will likely be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Rogers said he was not aware of the governor contacting Churchill Downs with concerns after his April 9 briefing. At his April 22 press conference, Beshear returned to his line that keeping the infield safe will be a combination of personal responsibility on the part of spectators and enforcement by Churchill Downs

“We know what the infield normally is, and it can’t be that this year,” he said. 

Signs advising social distancing are part of Churchill Downs’ COVID safety plan. Photo by Kathryn Harrington.

Other COVID safety precautions at Churchill this year include:

• Mask wearing at all times, except when actively eating or drinking

• Guests must provide their full name, phone numbers and zip code for contact tracing purposes

• Staff will wear gloves and masks during food preparation and all other guest interactions

• Increased cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch point areas

• More than 500 sanitizing stations throughout the facility

• PCR COVID tests for all unvaccinated staff (Churchill Downs has been hosting vaccination events at its facility for staff and the surrounding community.)

• Betting windows will be located throughout the facility, but guests are encouraged to wager online at twinspires.com