By E. Michael Johnson, Golf Digest
18 March 2020
Like most businesses during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, golf clubs are trying to figure out how to maintain elements of their operation while still protecting the safety of their employees and members. As a board member and a past president of a small private club in Connecticut, I’ve been a part of a series of conversations and decisions that underscore how complicated that balance is, and how quickly things can change.
After consulting with our staff management team and other clubs in the area, our initial communique last Friday was that the golf course and range would be open and we would have limited dining. The new golf simulator we installed in the clubhouse would be shut down. Carts would be available (and be heavily sanitized), but in understanding that many members would not feel comfortable riding, we waived the “trail fee” (a charge for walking) that we normally employ on weekend mornings. We encouraged members to take their clubs and shoes with them to reduce the number of “touches.” We told people not to shake hands but rather offer a wave.
Related: How to play golf amid coronavirus crisis
At the time, this felt appropriate, sensible and safe. It also seemed a reasonable way to allow our members to enjoy the club during what is an unsettling time. Little did we know that less than 24 hours later we would be sending a follow-up note to the membership informing them dining and bar service would be suspended and in the clubhouse, only the locker rooms would be open. In order to keep on some hourly staff, we offered take-out food orders with curbside pickup. Drive out and your order would be placed in your car by a member of the wait staff wearing gloves.
Since then even more steps have been taken. Flagsticks are to remain in the hole, and bunker rakes have been removed from the course—all in an effort to limit touch points. Carts are restricted to one person per cart unless immediate family. To give our social members (who do not have golf privileges) an opportunity to get out, we extended them temporary golf privileges on a couple of weekdays.
We are currently having further discussions. What do we do with ball washers and trash bins? Do we open the tennis courts (if you’re playing doubles that means four players are touching the same ball)? And what happens when we run out of sanitizing products? So many things to consider, all through the prism of trying to do what’s safe while offering people a respite from a distressing 24-hour news cycle. A bit of normalcy. A bit of fresh air.
We’re also discussing if there is a way to help the community in the process. With schools closed, kids who rely on school for nutrition are impacted. Is there a way we can help in that regard? So many questions. So few solid answers.
Short of mandates at the government level, every club has to make its own judgments based on the best information available, then adjust if needed. Many clubs we’ve spoken to have reflected similar steps—trying to keep the golf course open, heavily sanitizing carts and limiting (or discontinuing altogether) food service. Some clubs with caddies are left to decide whether they’re essential during the crisis. Social distancing guidelines might suggest no, but that’s another income impacted.
Some municipal courses are closed not only for health reasons, but because of broader directives about non-essential facilities. In other words, even in the time it takes to post this to our website, something could change.
Other clubs have come up with some creative ideas worthy of consideration. Shorehaven Golf Club in Connecticut and Ridgewood Country Club in New Jersey, No. 139 on our last Second 100 Greatest ranking, are taking the additional step of raising cups slightly above the putting surface and deeming any putt to hit the cup as holed to eliminate the need to touch the cup or flagstick.
Brownson Country Club, also in Connecticut, is offering its members a 5-percent discount on future food and beverage purchases as a way to generate cash flow during this time where revenue is scarce. Rye Golf Club in New York has access to its clubhouse by appointment only.
Quaker Ridge Golf Club, a Golf Digest 100 Greatest Golf Course, informed its members on March 12 it has made a number of the above adjustments in addition to staggered shifts for employees; caddies with gloves and disinfectant sprays; closing its indoor golf studio; and all food in pre-packaged containers among other measures.
Out west, Haggin Oaks in Sacramento is dealing with a mandate that anyone 65 and older must self-quarantine. According to Ken Morton Jr., 40 percent of his facilities’ staff is in that category, including entire departments like carts and course marshals. Morton says the facilities will shorten retail-store hours to help shift some of its staff in the stores to help cover shifts elsewhere.
Sherwood Country Club in California is closed but is allowing its members to play golf (no carts or caddies), racquet sports or swim at their own risk. The club is also paying its impacted staff for their regular hours through the end of March as a first step, while researching existing and developing state and federal programs and actions to assist its staff.
Such steps are more the norm than the exception. According to the National Club Association, 40 percent of its clubs have indicated moderate modifications as a result of the coronavirus, approximately 25 percent have indicated “a lot” (such as canceling all events) and nearly 20 percent have closed their facilities. Only 1 to 2 percent indicate they have made no modifications. A recent online town hall drew more than 2,000 people to hear experts in the medical and club fields while also collecting data on what many clubs are doing. Some of the actions the NCA is advocating clubs consider include (For more information, go to coronavirus.nationalclub.org):
• Establish phone trees to efficiently contact employees to check on and alert them during an emergency.
• Keep contact information for suppliers, vendors and other key contacts both in print and online in case of absence of an employee who typically deals with those individuals.
• Prepare for operational disruptions now by conducting employee cross-training, if possible, for key responsibilities and positions, as well as lining up backup staff.
• Review HR policies for paid and unpaid leave and teleworking.
• Establish club policies during a pandemic and be aware of Family Medical Leave Act requirements (if the club has more than 50 employees).
As mentioned earlier, my club’s course is open at the moment. I played this past weekend as did many others. Still, there was a sense that these rounds were more like the final few rounds you squeeze in prior to the course closing for winter than the start of a new season.
We can only hope that this “winter” is as mild as possible.
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