- Associated Press - Saturday, February 13, 2021

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - By early February during a typical year, Volare Italian Ristorante usually has sold out of reservations for its 250-seat establishment around the first Saturday in May.

But this year, chef-owner Josh Moore said the Frankfort Avenue establishment has had only a few reservations with just under three months to go until Kentucky Derby weekend.

Perhaps no single coronavirus-spurred event change had a bigger impact on Louisville businesses than Churchill Downs’ decision last year to run the 146th annual Kentucky Derby without fans in the stands after pushing the event to September.

And though Churchill’s plan of sticking to the Run for the Roses’ traditional date and allowing at least some spectators at the track provides a ray of hope, the ever-changing state of the deadly pandemic is a cause of some uncertainty for both business owners and prospective spectators.

“If last year taught us anything, it’s not to count our chickens (before they hatch) or to plan too far ahead,” Moore said, adding that he hopes this year’s Derby will be better than last, when his restaurant saw fewer customers than a typical September weekend.

Joshua Moore is the executive chef/co-owner of the Volare Italian Ristorante in Louisville, Ky. on Feb. 4, 2021.

Business owners like Moore anxiously followed Churchill Downs’ changes to the race last year as the racetrack tried to respond to the spread of COVID-19. With those changes - from pushing the race to September to announcing limited fan capacity to finally landing on no fans - “we just didn’t know what to do,” Moore said.

Churchill’s actions could help this year. The frenzy last year taught the racetrack to create plans that could be safely executed immediately rather than project too far into the future, Churchill Downs spokeswoman Tonya Abeln said in an interview with The Courier Journal.

“There’s a lot of responsibility in planning and executing anevent that has such an economic impact on the city and we know other local businesses are looking to our plan to help make theirs,” Abeln said. “It’s easier for everyone if we make those decisions based on the here and now and then everything beyond that is hopefully gravy.”

For the time being, Churchill Downs is sticking with the Derby plans CEO Bill Carstanjen discussed in October 2020: no change of date, a 40% to 50% limit on thenumber of reserved seats sold and a delay in potentially selling general admission tickets.

The track has 55,000 to 60,000 reserved seats. At 50% capacity for those seats, the track could welcome roughly 22,500 to 30,000 fans for Derby on May 1. (That’s compared with a regular capacity of 165,000, which includes general admission tickets.)

Abeln said the capacity and other plans could change, depending on vaccine deployment and the state of the pandemic.

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Kathy Olliges is carefully following Churchill Downs’ plans. The owner of Dee’s, a craft business at 5045 Shelbyville Road in St. Matthews, said her store has already begun to receive some inquiries about its custom-made hats.

Dee’s typically sells 6,000 hats ahead of the Kentucky Derby, Olliges said. Last year didn’t quite live up to that, though Olliges said she didn’t have a specific number for how many hats the store sold: “We didn’t even count. We said, ‘OK, that’s done. Let’s just put it away and move on to Christmas.’”

Olliges said her business “had survived and is doing very well.” As for this year’s Derby, Olliges said it is “a relief” that fans will be in the stands, and she hopes general admission tickets will be sold - thus drawing more people to Dee’s.

“We don’t have a clue what it’s going to be like, but we have to be ready because that can change at any point and open it up even further,” Olliges said. “So we are definitely going to be prepared.”

Like Olliges, Louisville Tourism is also carefully keeping an eye on developments at Churchill Downs. Not only does the weekend of the Kentucky Oaks and Derby consistently bring the largest estimated economic impact of any event for the city, but it is also integral for attracting conventions, said Stacey Yates, a spokeswoman for the agency.

“Meeting planners are inundated with messaging from every city in America, and our salespeople will use every tool in the toolkit to stand out,” Yates said. “Make no mistake: The annual running of the Kentucky Derby and the cultural flavor that it has is an advantage for us.”

The agency could use a pick-me-up after a difficult 2020. The city only realized $105 million in estimated economic impact from events after an original projection of more than $973 million.

A major part of that pandemic-related hit was the lack of fans at Oaks and Derby, which the agency was projecting to have an impact just above $394 million. The projection for those events this year is close to $200 million - lower than the normal projection, given the pandemic.

Another possible beneficiary of fans in the stands at Churchill Downs is Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport. For the Wednesday through Friday before Derby last year, the airport had 14,544 arriving passengers - almost half the total of the same days for 2019, according to data provided by spokeswoman Natalie Chaudoin.

Overall, holding the Kentucky Derby with fans “sends a big message to the world that we’re safe, we’re open and we want people here,” said Stacy Roof, president and CEO of the Kentucky Restaurant Association.

Roof said that Derby, along with holiday dining, provides Louisville restaurants with a major boost in sustaining their incomes. However, she added that certain factors, like capacity limitations - restaurants can only allow 50% of their regular indoor capacity at the moment, per an executive order from Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear - make it difficult to project the exact impact.

Moore, the owner of Volare at 2300 Frankfort Ave., said he hopes that lowering COVID-19 case totals and more widespread vaccine distribution will lead Beshear’s administration to increase capacity by May: “It doesn’t matter how many people come into town if we’re still limited.”

Nonetheless, Moore said he hopes that, in three months, the state of the pandemic will continue to improve.

And with restaurants being “hit harder than a lot of other industries” and still dealing with restrictions, the Kentucky Derby and the fans it brings to Louisville could possibly serve as an impetus for recovery, Moore said.

“The restaurant industry is such a crucial part of Louisville, what makes our city so amazing,” he said. “And I hope that we can get back to some kind of normalcy.”

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