Update, March 15: Governments, clubs and associations continue to institute a range of recommendations about whether golf courses should be open during the coronavirus crisis. This story deals primarily with the physical act of playing golf outside while adhering to social distance guidelines.
Chris Marchini is the general manager of the Golf Galaxy in Pittsburgh, and like a lot of us, golf is his passion and his escape from the stresses of everyday life, stresses that no doubt are at a new level in the wake of fears brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Nothing can make him feel more at ease than a round with friends and family, especially a few holes with his son Cam. As the two snuck in a quick nine on Friday afternoon, Cam turned to his dad and voiced what we’re all hoping is true. “You know what, Dad? Besides home, this feels like the safest place to be.”
Fact is, with the right precautions and perhaps a little pre- and post-round modifications, golf might be just the right antidote to the mounting fears of coronavirus.
According to Dr. Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, golf as it’s normally played—outdoors, with natural social-distancing built in—“would be fairly safe.”
Let’s take you through some of the guidelines that golfers should remember, and take comfort in, as they think about the game as a possible escape from the current headlines.
They’re canceling golf tournaments. Why would playing golf be OK?
A professional golf tournament with 25,000 spectators a day and at least another thousand support staff, media, players and officials is nothing like a packed Saturday at your local muni. Golf as a form of recreation, given the right conditions, can be a lot closer to hiking. As Dr. Troisi explains, it’s the way the game is different than other activities that makes it a viable alternative to locking yourself indoors.
“You’re not in contact with a whole lot of other people, and it’s not like basketball where you’re touching and very close to other players, so you could maintain several feet of distance between people,” she said. Also, the outside aspect of golf is not trivial.
“With the caveat that there’s a lot about this virus we still don’t know, it is a kind of virus that has an envelope, which means that it’s more easily killed than some other viruses. Sunlight and other environmental conditions can kill viruses like this, so it is probable that that is true for this novel coronavirus, as well.
“So I would say in the actual playing of golf, you’re not at much risk.”
What does “social distancing” mean with respect to playing golf?
Generally, the key is to be more than six feet away from others. Stay out of gimme distance. “As much as we know anything for now, we know that if you’re more than six feet from somebody, they’re not going to spread it to you. So even within your foursome, you just stay a little bit farther away than you might ordinarily,” Troisi said.
What golfers need to remember is that the benefits of social distancing aren’t explicitly about protecting yourself as much as they are an effective means of controlling spread of the virus. For an otherwise healthy 35-year-old, “the odds are very high that even if you did get sick, you would be fine.” The problems come with infecting more vulnerable members of the community, and of course, as you age, your immune system doesn’t work as well. Of course, the average age of an American golfer is older than 50, and in some communities like private clubs there’s a high percentage of players who are 70-plus. At the mammoth retirement community The Villages in Central Florida, a drive-thru coronavirus test center opened on Friday. Nurse technicians will swab patients without them having to get out of their cars.
“Based on our patient population and based on what’s going on throughout the country we thought it best at this time to help our patients to set up a mobile testing site,” Craig Esquenazi, Premier Medical Associates Dir. Of Operations told the local Fox affiliate.
That said, it’s also the case that golfers need to be aware of what’s happening in your area. As Crystal Watson, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security recently told The Atlantic, “It depends on local context. If we’re in a situation where the disease has been shown to be spreading widely, I think people will start to want to stay home and not go out into crowded settings.”
Within the context of a round of golf and with respect to what social distancing means, a golf course rarely constitutes a crowded setting. Like any other public setting, golf facilities have busier times than others, so you run even less risk playing at times when fewer people are around. More concerning might be indoor simulator facilities and ranges that cater to the bar-scene crowd. Also, it seems wise to refrain from large golf outings or group clinics where golfers might be gathered for significant periods. Even long face-to-face conversations during a delay on a tee box should be avoided because it poses the risk of an inadvertent cough or sneeze, according to Julian Tang, a virologist and professor at the University of Leicester in England.
“If you can smell what someone had for lunch—garlic, curry, etc.—you are inhaling what they are breathing out, including any virus in their breath,” he told The New York Times.
So if older populations are at risk, does that mean that senior citizens, one of golf’s bigger demographics, should curtail their time on the golf course?
Though the risk of playing golf is the same, the results might be more dangerous. Troisi said the research indicates that there were significantly higher death rates in China for people older than 65 and those rates increased greatly in those older than 70 and particularly for those 80 and older. “What we don’t know is whether there were other conditions,” she said. “But we do know your immune system doesn’t work as well, so it is certainly something to consider if you are in that age group.”
Dr. Troisi said senior golfers, just like all golfers, should be especially vigilant about the current Centers for Disease Control guidelines for vigorous hand-washing. Since hand-washing might not be a practical option out on the seventh tee box, for example, she says hand sanitizer is an effective alternative and should be in every golfer’s bag. “In terms of killing pathogens, a hand sanitizer works just as well as washing with soap and water,” she said.
Doesn’t the virus linger on surfaces for long periods of time, like, say, a cart or flagstick?
Though Dr. Troisi does think golf is a relatively safe activity in the current situation, she does advocate some changes in behavior from how people currently enjoy the game. Riding in a cart with a friend, for instance, puts you within the six-foot range, which is reason to consider walking or taking your own cart. We normally support taking caddies, but that dynamic poses new risk under the current circumstances.
As for the flagstick, despite our scientific evidence that leaving the flagstick in hurts your chances of putts being holed, it’s probably best to leave the flagsticks untouched for the entire day. That said, some important things to remember:
• Though the virus has been shown to stay contagious for two to three days on an inanimate object, those are largely in laboratory settings. “We haven’t done those experiments outside and in sunlight, so the odds are it would be a much shorter time,” Troisi said.
• Touching an infected surface does not give you COVID-19, the disease brought on by this novel coronavirus. Touching an infected surface and then immediately touching your face is the problem. The virus travels through the viral droplets from a sneeze or cough and gets in your cells through the nose, ears and mouth. But it definitely can be transmitted over time from an inanimate object. The New York Times reported that after many who attended a Buddhist temple in Hong Kong became ill, the virus was found on faucets and the cloth covers of shared Buddhist texts. So like in all aspects of life, restrict touching your face and wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer after you touch anything that isn’t yours.
• That goes, as well, for handling someone else’s clubs. Though it might be a temporary seismic shift from the typical fellowship of a round of golf, when it comes to direct person-to-person contact, keeping to yourself and keeping your distance is still the correct way to go.
• Of course, that means the 18th-green handshake needs to be abandoned, at least for now. “Start a new tradition—elbow bumps, shoe bumps or the namaste bow,” Troisi said.
What about the 19th hole or the locker room before and after the round?
Experts are unequivocal on one thing with regard to coronavirus: These are unique times, and they quite simply require fundamental shifts in behavior. “If you go to a crowded bar where you’re up one against another, that’s a lot different from going to a bar where you’re spread out,” Albert Ko, the chair of the epidemiology department at the Yale School of Public Health, told The Atlantic. “Bottom line, there’s no absolute indication not to go to bars and restaurants, but in practicing good public health—which is kind of a responsibility for everybody in the country—really think about how we can decrease those close contacts.”
We have heard of clubs and courses that have closed their indoor operation while the course remains open. The National Club Association, which is a hosting a free COVID-19 Town Hall webinar on Monday that is open to member and nonmember clubs, recently provided member guidelines for indoor service, including:
• Open up all club spaces and zones to ease member distribution.
• Reduce capacity of restaurant seating available and increase space between parties.
• Limit access to inside areas like the bar or grill during peak periods to avoid overcrowding.
• No self-service.
The traditional drinks at the bar after the round need to be rethought. Said Troisi: “The time before the round and what you do after the round might be where the risk is. When you go have a drink after, you’re not going to sit six feet from a friend in the bar.” Maybe for the time being, it’s best to say your goodbyes in the parking lot.
“There’s just a lot that we don’t know. But we’re learning more every day. Social distancing was done [during 1918 flu pandemic], and we know that cities that did it had fewer cases and fewer deaths than cities that didn’t.”
Finally, isn’t there a mental aspect to all this as well? Being indoors all the time can’t be good for you, right?
Fighting the coronavirus is a communal effort, but from an individual basis, it also has much to do with our immune systems, and the fact is our immune systems do not work well when they are stressed. Golf, even for those of us who know the internal outrage of the 40-yard slice or the third three-putt in four holes, can and should be a de-stresser. That’s a good thing.
“Social distancing doesn’t mean you’re being a hermit,” Troisi said. “Relieving stress helps your immune system and we know that physical activity boosts your immune system, so for both mental and physical health, it’s good to get activity however you can get it without putting yourself at risk. So anything outside where you’re not putting yourself in close proximity to a lot of people can be good for you. Being in nature helps your mental health, as well.”
Less stress, physical activity, being outdoors, taking in nature. Maybe hitting more practice balls on the range or even walking the course at night with a club and a few balls. Sounds a lot like the game we love. Be careful out there.