NEW LEBANON — The state suspended Lebanon Valley Speedway’s liquor license Friday, putting a stop to the racetrack’s in-person Fourth of July festivities.
The state Liquor Authority issued the emergency suspension order Friday evening after the racetrack indicated to SLA officials that it intended to move forward with its Independence Day event in defiance of state regulations limiting gatherings to 50 people.
The racetrack canceled the event, which was to include fireworks, after the suspension came down, and the races were broadcast online without spectators.
The liquor license suspension is an example of “rampant unfair enforcement,” said the racetrack’s attorney, Ken McGuire Jr., who criticized the suspension.
The governor is using enforcement agencies to strongarm people into compliance with his rules, McGuire said.
The board of the SLA temporarily revoked the license after the racetrack advertised and promoted Saturday’s races and fireworks to the public without stating a limit on attendees, which the SLA said was in violation of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order 202.45 banning large gatherings.
Before issuing the suspension, the SLA said it notified the racetrack about size and distancing requirements, but that the racetrack refused to comply or cancel the event, according to a statement released by the SLA on Saturday.
Assemblyman Jake Ashby, R-107, has conferred with the governor’s office and the SLA to get clarity on the suspension, Ashby spokesman Thomas Grant said Monday.
The racetrack was singled out for censure, Grant said.
New Lebanon Town Supervisor Tistrya Houghtling called the Lebanon Valley Speedway a “critical local business” and said the racetrack is not alone in facing reopening woes.
“Like many small businesses, they are struggling to meet the criteria set by the state to reopen the economy in a safe and responsible way,” Houghtling said in a statement. “I will be doing everything I can to help the Speedway reopen and meet the guidelines of the state to ensure safety for all of their patrons and New Lebanon residents.”
The SLA contacted McGuire and Lebanon Valley Speedway owner Howard Commander after receiving several complaints, said SLA spokesman William Crowley on Monday.
The racetrack was in talks with state officials beginning on June 29 to resolve the matter, at one point offering to close down its beer vendors and not serve alcohol at the planned event, McGuire said.
The state moved forward with the suspension, arguing that the planned event posed a danger to public health, according to the order that was approved by the SLA’s three commissioners Vincent Bradley, Lily Fan and Greeley Ford.
In light of the suspension, the racetrack postponed the fireworks and the races, advertised as the Butch Jelley Memorial Modified Event, until Labor Day weekend in September, and announced the change, which it said was “due to state interference.”
The suspension marks the second time the state moved to close a Columbia County business during the coronavirus pandemic. Hudson Brewing Company had its liquor license suspended in late May by the SLA for allowing customers to congregate outside the brewery in violation of state restrictions on gatherings.
Hudson Brewing’s license has not been reinstated as of Monday.
The SLA has issued 21 emergency liquor license suspensions since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, whereas the agency typically issues about 30 a year, Crowley said.
McGuire said he believes the timing of the suspension at 8:45 p.m. Friday evening was deliberate, giving the racetrack management no opportunity to appeal the decision.
McGuire, a Brunswick-based lawyer who has represented the Lebanon Valley Speedway for almost 20 years, said the racetrack was dedicated to following social distancing requirements and planned to spread spectators out among the stadium’s 7,100 seats.
“We had offered from day one to limit capacity to a percentage they desired,” McGuire said.
Racetracks and other recreational and sporting events are part of phase 4 of the state’s reopening, which the Capital District Region entered Wednesday.
Lebanon Valley Speedway traditionally hosts races over a 20-week season, stretching from spring through early fall. The racetrack normally draws tens of thousands of fans and drivers.
The racetrack has been closed to spectators since the NY on PAUSE directive went into effect in March, just prior to the typical opening of the track’s preseason.
After Ashby and state Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-43, requested in late April that Gov. Andrew Cuomo issue a waiver to allow racers to use the track in a limited capacity, the racetrack reopened for drivers to test and tune their vehicles.
In a letter to the governor, Ashby and Jordan wrote that the pandemic restrictions have caused financial hardships for the racetrack.
“Mr. Commander has already canceled events, and seen events canceled, due to the coronavirus pandemic,” according to the letter. “These cancellations have already imposed serious and significant financial burdens on the raceway, which operates on a seasonal basis.”