Economy

Sylvia Johnson has been letting Derby fans park their cars on her lawn on Heywood Avenue for 20 years, packing them in strategically.

“One, two, I usually get three, you know,” Johnson said, measuring out imaginary cars in her front yard.

“We got a system, you know. You put the small ones in here and then the big ones in the back.”

She’s got prime real estate, parking-wise, just two blocks away from Churchill Downs. Normally she takes reservations.

“You just can’t even get through the streets, it be so crowded,” Johnson said.

But this year’s going to be different. It’s already different. The coronavirus pandemic forced the delay of the Derby from the first Saturday in May until the first Saturday in September.

And though Derby officials initially wanted to have some fans in attendance for the most exciting two minutes in sports, the steady increase of coronavirus cases in Louisville and Kentucky prevented that from happening.

Carolyn Beachem is a cashier at Wagner’s Pharmacy, located right across 4th Street from Churchill Downs. Wagner’s is famous for its diner-style breakfasts, especially among people on their way to, or taking a break from, the track.

Beachem says that normally in the week leading up to Derby, “it’s like a zoo.”

“I mean it’s crazy. There’s people lined all the way up from all the way up front, all the way back here and out the door for breakfast,” Beachem said.

But this year, “who knows.”

“You have no idea of knowing, honey. None whatsoever,” Beachem said. “We’re going to be open, we’re open for breakfast and we have inside plus outside seating. We hope we’ll have some people.”

Sharon Mapes is cooking in the Wagner’s kitchen. She says she misses the excitement of Derby season and is looking forward to next year.

“Hopefully we get a vaccine by then and then we’ll be all good. That’s all I hope for,” Mapes said.

Before the pandemic, Louisville Tourism estimated that the Derby and Kentucky Oaks would have generated about $394 million for the local economy, attracting a crowd of about 256,000 people. And that doesn’t include the Kentucky Derby Festival, with events like Thunder Over Louisville that were canceled this year.

From restaurants, to hotels, to parking, the races are a big deal and big money for local businesses and entrepreneurs.

But it’s also a time for people to come together and party, says Sheretta Lee, who also lives on Heywood Avenue.

“I have like a 20-foot tent, two twenty-foot tents, a stage, a band and lots and lots of people. Lots and lots of people,” Lee said, narrating a cell phone video of her 2018 party.

“It just talking and communicating and socializing and loving the area, loving every moment about everything that’s going on, ya know?”

Lee says she’s sad about not being able to host a Derby block party this year, but she plans to do something, maybe related to the city’s ongoing protests for racial justice.

“My plan is to set up something for the community. Just to be heard about what’s going on and what’s going to go on,” Lee said.

Protesters have called for the Derby to be canceled while Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron still hasn’t released the investigation into the death of Breonna Taylor, a local emergency room technician killed by police in March.

A Black militia called the NFAC was in Louisville in July, and they have said they will return on Derby day to protest the event.

Ryland Barton is the Capitol bureau chief for Kentucky Public Radio.