LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The Kentucky Derby is back on the first Saturday in May, and it’s slowly bringing back the sights, sounds, and rituals that Louisville is familiar with.

And local officials and business owners are confident this will translate into better cash flow after the coronavirus pandemic changed the derby’s schedule last year.

The Thunder Over Louisville air show and fireworks that kick off Derby activities resumed with loud booms last weekend. Marathons and cycling races practically held last fall kicked off live this weekend, along with thousands of yellow rubber ducks bobbing in the Ohio River in the Ken-ducky-D Derby.

Tourists keep flocking to hotels, restaurants and museums in the city center. The most anticipated scenes appear at Churchill Downs’ 147th Run for the Roses on Saturday. Women in big brightly colored hats and men in seersucker suits occasionally pull aside their required face masks to drink bourbon and mint juleps and blow cigars.

“It definitely smells like Derby,” said Kenzie Kapp of Louisville, who owns a headgear company that is growing demand for masks that match her hats and allures.

“It was different in autumn. It’s so nice to be back on the first Saturday in May. That feels good. It feels right. It feels right at home. “

Social distancing guidelines will spread the crowd among the Twin Spiers and infield, a stark contrast to last fall’s spectator-free derby that was pushed back to Labor Day. Either way, it’s an encouraging sign of a return to normal for the greatest horse racing event and its hometown.

This year’s economic impact on the region is estimated at $ 34.6 million, less than a tenth of the typical $ 400 million the event generates. Capacity is limited to 40% to 50% for reserved seating and up to 60% in certain private areas for both the Kentucky Oaks and Churchill Downs Derby. Around 15,000 fans are allowed in the infield, a total of around 45,000 visitors.

While those projections are 100,000 below normal, that’s still enough to reinvigorate hopes for companies hurt last spring by the derby’s first postponement since 1945.

“There’s still excitement and brand awareness because it’s such a big tradition,” said Rosanne Mastin, spokeswoman for Louisville Tourism, of the derby. “It may not be the 100% capacity we’re used to, but we’re lucky. We are yet to discover some of the economic impact of what is usually Louisville’s largest tourism generator.

“We’re happy to have some (impact) as we really didn’t have any last year. Some are better than none. “

Occupancy of the region’s 21,000 hotel rooms has exceeded 60%, with several venues sold out. Luxury hotels like the Omni Louisville are enjoying the return of the derby, no small matter considering rooms cost around $ 1,999 a night with a three night minimum.

To this end, Omni General Manager Eamon O’Brien has planned several Derby-themed events in the 3-year-old venue, the third tallest building in the city. It has partnered with high-end distiller Woodford Reserve for a lounge and will host concerts with musicians and a DJ.

“We’re just excited and grateful that we have an event here this year and actually have fans here to serve and take care of,” said O’Brien.

In other places in the city center, things keep coming back to life. One trend that companies are hoping for goes beyond the derby.

While COVID-19 guidelines have limited the number of tour groups at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience on Whiskey Row to six, Jeff Crowe, Visitor Experience Director at Heaven Hill Distillery, said tours are booked through the end of May. The bar and retail space has increased and business at the On3 bar has increased.

“Our phones are ringing,” said Crowe, who also announced the company’s retention of staff for other tasks such as hand sanitizer making and online tastings.

At Churchill Downs, Jonathan Blue can’t wait to kickstart cigar sales as a partner on the track after missing out when fans were denied. The co-owner of Liquor Barn said the nationwide chain had a surprising boost from liquor packaging for home parties, but he is excited to see how mask mandates will affect sales and enjoyment.

A certainty, notes Blue, “If someone wants a cigar, they can get access.”

The number of visitors to the Frazier History Museum increased in March when more people were vaccinated. Event bookings are also made on the website, highlighting Kentucky’s tradition and heritage, particularly its signature whiskey.

Museum President and CEO Andy Treinen noted that there is still a long way to go before the derby buzz reaches pre-pandemic levels. But the energy is growing, and Louisville and Kentucky will benefit from it in the long run.

“It’s like, that’s the month every year when you see the people, who you see once a year and with whom you can celebrate,” said Treinen. “You may see them more often a year, but this is the time to celebrate. We’re getting closer to that, and that’s what makes the state of Kentucky special at Derby time. “