By Tom Precious and Bob Ehalt
New York state will build a 1,000-bed emergency hospital at Aqueduct racetrack in Queens to try to help the region accommodate an expected surge of COVID-19 patients in the coming weeks.
Due to the construction announced March 28 by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the remainder of the winter and spring meets at Aqueduct have been canceled. Racing was originally scheduled to conclude at the Ozone Park track on April 19.
The New York Racing Association will now focus efforts on preparing for live racing at Belmont Park.
“NYRA is continuing to strategize the safest options for a return to racing at Belmont Park, while prioritizing the health and welfare of our staff and the racing community,” said NYRA CEO and president David O'Rourke. “A revised live racing schedule is an ongoing consideration, but secondary to our primary commitment to the health and well-being of the community.”
The 152nd running of the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes is still on tap for June 6 as the centerpiece of the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, which will begin June 4.
Cuomo announced Saturday that New York State had received federal approval to move forward with the temporary hospital at Aqueduct Racetrack, as well as with other temporary hospitals located in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the Bronx.
“NYRA and the New York racing community are thankful for Gov. Cuomo's steady leadership during this unprecedented public health crisis, and we stand ready to assist in any way we can,” O'Rourke said. “The governor's ability to quickly marshal all available resources is saving lives and inspiring action both here in New York and across the nation.
“Now that Gov. Cuomo has secured the federal approval, Aqueduct Racetrack will serve as a safe haven for those recovering from this virus. We recognize that we all must work together as a community to meet this challenge and emerge stronger for it. NYRA also joins the governor in extending our deepest gratitude to the first responders, medical professionals, and volunteers who continue to operate on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19.”
Cuomo first pitched the idea March 27 at an event in where he opened a temporary hospital facility in a sprawling convention center in mid-town Manhattan. He has asked the federal government for authority to build an additional four hospitals in the city's other four boroughs to try to ensure that “everyone is being helped and is being protected.”
The number of confirmed novel coronavirus cases in New York City has soared above 26,000; 450 people have died there. The newly proposed facilities would open sometime in April.
The New York Racing Association suspended racing at Aqueduct on March 20 after a backstretch worker at Belmont Park tested positive for COVID-19. By March 26, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 of backstretch staff had grown to six. Queens has the most cases of the virus in New York City.
The Queens racetrack has already been serving as a coronavirus mobile testing site, and NYRA's properties are no strangers to being put into service for emergencies. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Belmont Park was a staging area for some emergency operations by responders at the World Trade Center complex. After Superstorm Sandy in 2012, Aqueduct's parking lot was used by the American Red Cross for a mobile feeding kitchen operation.