Golf + The Coronavirus

Conflicting state directives create confusion for golf courses

Are golf courses allowed to stay open even when states are shutting down non-essential businesses? The answers aren't always clear
March 27, 2020
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golf-course-with-golf-carts-fog.jpg

Photo by: Andersen Ross Photography Inc

Andersen Ross Photography Inc

Over the past few days some of us at Golf Digest, along with a slew of our contacts in various parts of the country, have tried to get a handle on what each state is doing in regards to keeping golf courses open or closed in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. While far from any sort of uniformity, one thing became evidently clear:

Not much is actually clear.

Consider what’s been going on in Connecticut. On Sunday, March 23, Gov. Ned Lamont issued a state-wide stay-at-home directive, calling for employees of all non-essential businesses to work from home, effective at 8 p.m. on March 23, with no in-person workforce allowed through April 22. It appeared golf courses would be among the establishments required to shut down, except some wording in the directive could have been interpreted otherwise. Less than 12 hours after that order went into effect, further guidance came on March 24 that golf courses would not be exempted, although they could continue having employees doing course maintenance.

Shortly after, the Connecticut State Golf Association circulated an email imploring golfers to contact their state representative or the governor’s office to ask them to reconsider. The measure worked; on Wednesday, March 25, the state reversed course and made golf allowable under certain restrictions designed to make the sport safe in light of the virus.

That was welcomed news for golfers in the Nutmeg State, who are under a state-wide directive to stay at home as much as possible. But it serves as an example for much of the confusion that is going on in many states as it relates to golf. One day golf courses seem to be open for business, the next day they’re not (or vice versa).

With no guidance from the federal government, little from state government—and ambiguous or sometimes confusing information when it does come—golf facilities have been left in a limbo as to what is the best course of action amid the pandemic.

Dylan Thew, director of golf at Kiawah Island Club in South Carolina, is living the conundrum. “There’s been nothing concrete here in Charleston,” Thew said. “The city has ordered a stay-in-place [directive], but the roads are open and no police [are enforcing it]. The town of Kiawah hasn’t said anything, so it’s pretty clear for us that we are good to still operate as usual. There’s definitely lots of gray areas. I do not think we will ever change our plans unless there is a mandatory state-wide quarantine.”

In New York and New Jersey, state governments have closed all non-essential businesses, with the guidelines seemingly calling for golf courses to stop operations (although maintenance of courses would be allowed). However, a number of public courses tied to the parks system seem to be an exception, and a survey of some 40 clubs in the Met Section revealed approximately 40 percent were still playing in some capacity.

Maryland reportedly has closed all its courses, as has Pennsylvania, although an MSN.com report said a coalition of golf organizations were petitioning Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf to allow their courses to re-open. Unlike in Connecticut, however, their grassroots effort was having little luck.

In Delaware, Gov. John Carney issued an order than included golf courses be closed. Or did it? The order read “golf courses and shooting ranges (unless they conform with social-distancing requirements).”

In warmer climes, Arizona sees most courses remaining open and the Cactus Tour is playing a regular tournament schedule. According to the Associated Press, that situation resulted in the mayors of five cities, including Tucson and Flagstaff, sending Gov. Doug Ducey a letter saying his executive order should not have included golf courses among the definition of “essential businesses” that are allowed to stay open.

Gavin Newsom, California’s governor, ordered the lockdown of all of the state’s 40 million residents on March 19, and while many courses responded immediately by closing, others have continued to fill their tee sheets. Notably, in the state capital of Sacramento, six city and county courses remain open, including Haggin Oaks, which is a mere eight miles from the capitol building where Newsom made his stay-at-home decree.

A survey by the Southern California PGA released this week reported the responses of 124 public and private courses. Nearly 84 percent said they were closed. Almost 92 percent said they were not providing instruction at their facility, while 64 percent said they were providing takeout food and beverage service.

In Florida, course closures have been made at the county level, with Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach all closed, but others keeping courses open. At The Villages, the massive retirement community some 45 miles northwest of Orlando, golf continues non-stop at its 50 courses for the more than 50,000 residents. The average age of residents in The Villages is 71, according to data from 2017—a group that seemingly would be at risk should they contract the coronavirus.

“It’s been a roller coaster ride the last few days trying to keep track of all these executive orders across my region,” said David Phipps, Northwest field staff representative for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America. “We have been successful in getting letters for clarification to all states but have not seen true clarification come out in all.”

Phipps went on to mention that in Oregon he was able to get clarity from the governor’s office that golf was allowed, provided proper social-distancing measures took place, characterizing the sport as an equivalent to hiking or other outdoor activity. “This is what we are going by for now, as these are very fluid times,” Phipps said. “This could change any day. As long as golfers do not abuse the privilege, it can remain a viable activity.”

Still, some facilities, such as Bandon Dunes Resort, have voluntarily decided to shut down out of a feeling of civic responsibility. The resort gets much of its business from out-of-state visitors, many flying through San Francisco, which has been hard hit by the virus. Bandon’s predicament is one for many resorts and high-end daily-fee facilities that rely on out-of-towners for revenue. Golf Digest research shows approximately half of the courses among the top 50 of our America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses list remain open.

In Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a “stay at home” order for the entire state, beginning March 21 and lasting through April 7. That presumably meant no golf. On March 24, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity announced a reversal in which golf is allowed with many of the same restrictions and social-distancing being implemented at courses nationwide.

“Things have been pretty confusing over the past week,” said Steve Hands, club president at Park Ridge (Ill.) C.C. “The order that came from the governor wasn’t very clear as it relates to golf, so we stayed open. Then we were asked to close. We weren’t ordered to, but were asked to and we did, because we want to abide by what’s intended. But it’s tough when your course is closed and the next town over, they’re open. At least now there is a little more clarity.”

That came a little late, however, for a couple of people who set out to play at Park Ridge before the reversal. Neighbors were having none of it and reported the incident to police, who escorted the golfers off the course. “It sounds worse than it was,” Hands said. “They had a conversation and left right away.”

Enforcement of course closures raises an interesting dilemma for municipalities: Is it really worth penalizing someone for playing golf? What’s the harm in getting a bit of fresh air and trying to maintain one’s sanity after lengthy work-from-home days or home schooling (or both)? However, if the government has declared golf off limits, it might be the only way to keep those itchy for any kind of escape from flooding the fairways.

Zack Chapin is vice president of operations at Michigan’s Arcadia Bluffs, ranked 13th in our America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses. The course is scheduled to open the first week of April, but Chapin is dealing with a number of unknowns.

“Right now our executive order is not very clear,” Chapin said. “We can still maintain the golf course, so we have a few staff members here at the moment. We’re waiting for the governor’s order to come down to see if we can open. We’re just kind of waiting to figure out what we can do and how this is going to play out and how we can do our best to abide by everything.”

In these times it is difficult to know what is right. Golf, on its face, seems a reasonably safe activity if the proper precautions are taken, both by golfers and facilities. Yet like most things, there is nuance. A small private club doesn’t have the same activity as a bustling public facility. Without proper guidance, golf courses are left to decide where to draw the line. Or whether to draw one at all.

In the meantime, Chapin’s maintenance staff is getting done what needs to get done, hoping for an opening day that may or may not come. Asked what the plan is should the course be closed to both play and maintenance, Chapin echoed the sentiments of many in the golf course industry.

“We’ll just roll with whatever the punches are.”

Additional reporting by Mike Stachura