A COVID-19 outbreak has swept through the Golden Gate Fields racetrack community in Berkeley, with more than 100 workers there testing positive this week.
And there are still numerous test results pending, city officials told Berkeleyside on Thursday. The outbreak caused Berkeley’s cases to spike overnight from about 920 on Wednesday to 1,050 as of Thursday.
It is the single largest one-day coronavirus spike in Berkeley since the city’s first case was reported in late February. It is also the largest outbreak in the city reported to date at a single facility.
The racetrack, which straddles the border of Berkeley and Albany along the San Francisco Bay, has 1,300 horses stabled on-site. The track itself is in Albany, but the barn area, where hundreds of people who care for the horses live, is in Berkeley. Many of the workers are from Mexico and farther south, and live in simple dorm-style rooms beside the stables of the racehorses they care for.
David Duggan, Golden Gate Fields general manager, told Berkeleyside on Thursday that the outbreak started in the barn area.
Racetrack officials first announced a one-week suspension of live horse racing at Golden Gate Fields on Friday to address a COVID-19 outbreak. On Wednesday, the track extended the closure through the end of November, citing “continued regard for the safety and well-being” of employees and the larger community, and “in following the best guidance from local health authorities,” according to a prepared statement Duggan shared with Berkeleyside.
Since Friday, according to the statement, “all track facilities have undergone thorough cleaning” and all employees at the track — identified as “1/ST RACING employees” and other people who work “on the backstretch” — have been tested for COVID-19. Testing data has been shared with the Berkeley Public Health Division (BPHD), as required by law.
Many of the grooms, hot walkers (people who cool down the horses after their morning workout) and others who work in the barns at Golden Gate Fields come from families that have been doing this work for generations.
Echa Schneider, a city of Berkeley spokeswoman, told Berkeleyside that the bulk of Thursday’s new COVID-19 cases stemmed from a “single outbreak.” But she said she could not release or confirm the location of the outbreak because of medical privacy laws.
Schneider said the city first learned about the outbreak last week and brought on additional contact tracers to help investigate all the new cases.
Schneider said she could not comment on whether any of the cases have resulted in hospitalizations, again citing medical privacy laws. But she did say more test results are pending and that the city might be able to share more information Friday.
Schneider admitted that “the numbers look bad,” but said it’s actually a sign that the contact tracing process is working because it means people are getting tested and are quarantining, which will prevent COVID-19 from spreading.
According to the Golden Gate Fields statement, everyone who has tested positive at the racetrack is “required to isolate as per BPHD protocols and are not able to return to Golden Gate Fields until health clearance has been provided by the BPHD.”
Many of the workers live at the racetrack and have lived there for years. It was unclear as of publication time exactly where those residents will be staying while they are in isolation. One person familiar with the situation said employees have moved into hotels and motels in and around Berkeley. (Berkeleyside is seeking further information.)
Duggan did not comment on that aspect of the situation but said he would be able to provide more information on the COVID-19 outbreak at Golden Gate Fields in the coming days.
According to the racetrack’s official statement, “Golden Gate Fields has implemented stringent health and safety measures including, strict social distancing, masking policies and regular COVID-19 testing with isolation requirements for any positive cases or identified close contacts” since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The track statement also said all of its horses would “continue to receive the daily care and exercise they require,” and that Golden Gate Fields would announce its reopening date “as soon as possible.”
Berkeleyside will share more information when it becomes available.