EMPTY CHURCHILL DOWNS - VIRUS PANDEMIC - 4-29-2020  WINNERS CIRCLE 2.jpg

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The 2020 Kentucky Derby will be run without fans on Sept. 5 as Churchill Downs backtracks from a plan to have as many as 23,000 spectators at the iconic Louisville track.

The company announced the change in plans on Friday, relenting amid a steady increase of coronavirus cases in Louisville in recent weeks.

Jefferson County had 1,571 cases in the week ending Aug. 16, up from 1,100 two weeks prior. The county's health department says it's on "high alert" status with rising cases and a rising positivity rate (8.9%).

"We just felt that we could not responsibly bring in 23,000 fans to the facility for the Derby," Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery said during a news conference Friday at the track.

Until Friday's announcement, Churchill Downs executives had maintained that they wanted fans at the track since postponing the Derby from its original May 2 date.

Flanery said Friday that they "tried as hard as we could" to pull it off with spectators.

"It’s not an easy decision," Flanery said. "It’s one that we tried as best we could to get over the finish line with it, but ultimately the safety of our guests, our community (and) our employees is the No. 1 priority." 

Gov. Andy Beshear and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer praised the decision in statements.

"I applaud Churchill Downs for continuing to monitor the virus and for making the right and responsible decision," Beshear said. 

"I know this was a tough decision for Churchill Downs, but it was obviously the right call for the health and safety of the people of Louisville," Fischer added. 

Flanery said Churchill Downs made the call on its own with no recommendation from outside.  

All Derby Week races, including the Sept. 4 Kentucky Oaks, will be run without spectators, just as Churchill Downs conducted its Spring Meet in May.

Attendance will be limited to "essential" personnel involved in the races, Flanery said.

The company will issue refunds to ticket holders.

Friday's announcement means Louisville will see almost none of the normal economic boost from its most significant event. The Derby usually generates about $400 million for hotels, restaurants and other industries, according to the city's tourism bureau.

But Flanery noted that it was already on track to have a much-diminished impact this year.

"That ship has sailed, if you will," he said. "... It's not about the economics and it hasn't been in quite a while."

The Derby normally draws about 150,000 people and drew 170,000 in 2015, its record year. 

This marks the second time in the Derby's 145-year history that it has been delayed from the traditional first Saturday in May. The first time was during World War II, when the race took place in June following Germany's surrender to the Allied Forces.

Reach reporter Chris Otts at 502-585-0822, cotts@wdrb.com, on Twitter or on Facebook. Copyright 2020 WDRB Media. All rights reserved.