By Dave Merrill, Bloomberg
12 April 2020
Across the U.S. most restaurants, bars and businesses deemed non-essential have closed, and almost every American has been ordered to stay at home as Covid-19 cases increase and deaths mount. While states permit people to get outside and exercise, finding space for fresh air can be hard to come by, as authorities limit the number of people that can congregate, and where. National parks, beaches and recreation areas have closed, but in most states, golf courses are an exception. About half of America’s 16,000 courses continue to operate in 34 states as essential outlets for exercise and health maintenance.
That might be welcome news to some of the 1.5 million workers supported by the golfing industry—excluding many of the furloughed caddies and clubhouse and restaurant staff whose jobs are considered non-essential segments of golf course operations. For the 24 million people in the U.S. who play the sport, mild late-winter weather provided more chances to tee up, and online bookings in the first quarter of 2020 were up 10% from last year, according to GolfNow data.
But even on 150-acre golf courses, some states and municipalities have called into question whether course operators can enforce social distancing guidelines—and whether golf courses are an essential business for recreation. Professional golf tournaments have been canceled or postponed, including the PGA’s Masters—which was scheduled for this weekend but postponed until November. Some of the states hardest hit by the outbreak, including Washington, Michigan and New Jersey, have forced all golf courses to close. Parts of Florida and California have done the same.
In an effort to prevent the spread of the virus at courses that remain open, new safety measures have been implemented nationwide. Clubs require limited handling of common items, flag sticks must be left in the hole and ball washers, towels and bunker rakes have been removed from courses. Some clubs have a one-rider-per-cart policy. Others have removed carts altogether because employees who clean and fuel the carts have been deemed non-essential and cannot work.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday that state golf courses are not essential and will be closed indefinitely. Some New York courses were operating with reduced staffing before the Thursday’s closure. A March 27 statement from New York’s regional Professional Golf Association and the Metropolitan Golf Association outlined that most staff are not essential and cannot work at the clubs even if operators choose to keep them open. “If clubs don’t feel comfortable having players on the course without staff available, the ‘lock the gates’ option should be considered,” the statement said.
Prior to Governor Cuomo’s announcement, Suffolk County Park System’s four public courses had operated for several weeks having implemented safety plans approved by county health officials—including adding minutes between tee times. But in Meriden, Connecticut, City Manager Tim Coon closed a municipal course on March 30 after he observed large groups on the course and in parking lots not adhering to social distancing guidelines “multiple times over multiple days,” putting the safety of players and employees at risk.
“We’re saying, ‘Listen, we’d rather have you off the course than in a hospital,’” Coon said.
President Trump’s golf properties have been particularly hard hit by local closure mandates. Only two of 12 U.S. Trump Golf courses, in Charlotte and Northern Virginia, remain open. Three Florida properties have closed in compliance with county ordinances, as have Trump’s New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Los Angeles properties. As with many other golf operations, Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Virginia, while remaining open, filed a layoff notice Thursday that affects 102 workers.
A petition requesting resumption of play in Minnesota has gained more than 40,000 signatures. In Wisconsin, 40 Republican lawmakers signed a letter to Governor Tony Evers urging him to reopen courses. But right now, according to GolfNow data, more courses are closing on a daily basis than are reopening.
Overall municipal courses have been more likely to close than privately-operated courses. And those in rural settings have been more likely to stay open than urban clubs. According to National Golf Foundation course closure data, 76% of Oklahoma courses remain open for golf.
In normal times, Bill Golden, the CEO of PlayGolfMyrtleBeach.com, is responsible for marketing 80 public courses in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Spring and fall are peak seasons for golf on the so-called Grand Strand courses.
“Right now, we aren’t marketing travel packages and we shouldn’t. So, we are asking our robust local golfing audience, if you have a chance to come out and do what you love, we’d love to have you.”
Eleven courses are closed, mostly because larger, multiple-course operators have consolidated tee-times to fewer courses. “With consolidation comes layoffs,” says Golden.
According to Golden, businesses are dutifully trying to maintain payrolls as best they can. Many are seeking Small Business Administration payroll protection made available through federal stimulus funding. The SBA relief loans will be forgiven if businesses can maintain headcounts and salaries over an eight-week stretch.
Golden says that across the board, resorts and hotels are honoring a no-questions-asked cancellation and refund policy. And while the spring economic reverses have been substantial, golf bookings for fall travel are way up. “The desire is there, the ability isn’t,” Golden said.
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