Early on, governors in states such as Arizona, North Carolina and South Carolina specifically identified golf as an activity that’s permitted to continue despite executive orders shutting down all non-essential businesses in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile, their counterparts in states like Maryland, Massachusetts and Nevada have stipulated that no golf operations can continue under their emergency orders.
To play or not to play golf during a pandemic – that is the question.
And it’s far more nuanced debate than simply pointing to the fact that golf is conducive to social distancing practices, that it has broad appeal to people of all ages for its wealth of physical and mental benefits, and that courses typically have a limited number of participants spread out over a wide-open property that is, on average, approximately 150 acres. Golf has all those selling points, and more.
But there’s also the question of optics and, in this unprecedented time, how wide the net is cast as it pertains to “essential” businesses or activities and golf’s place therein? Over the past month, there have been significant differences from state-to-state, with playing golf in its simplest form either lumped with recreational or personal care pursuits such as gyms, casinos, shopping malls, movie theaters, nail salons and massage parlors, or included among healthy outdoor activities such as walking, biking, hunting, fishing or running.
At a time when policy-makers are tasked with making oft-unilateral decisions regarding the shutdown of businesses in the interest of protecting the health of residents of their county or state, it shouldn’t be surprising some chose to err on the side of caution, not to mention public support (as more than 90% of the population doesn’t play golf).
A Divisive Issue
Golfers themselves have been divided on the issue, with some insisting quite passionately that it shouldn’t be played – at least for the time being. Others steadfastly insist that it’s the ideal activity for social distancing and that most areas aren’t demanding social isolation.
Interestingly, NGF research of core golfers (those who play 8 or more rounds a year) has shown an evolution in opinion regarding government restrictions. While once a 50-50 split for and against in an initial survey in early April, now almost 75% of core golfers are opposed to government restrictions. The group of golfers 65-and-over basically flip-flopped in just a three-week span, with 27% of those most recently surveyed saying they oppose restrictions, compared to 55% in the initial poll.
The perceptions, or misconceptions, of the privileged nature of golf can be a detriment, too, particularly as they relate to those government decisions being made during a time of crisis. That was apparent in California, the first state to impose some form of stay-at-home order. Initially, golf was given a pass and even encouraged as a way for people to get outdoors and be active, including in the nation’s second-biggest municipal golf system: Los Angeles County. As the crackdown on businesses and other recreational activities continued in the nation’s most populous state, golf courses weren’t going to win the case to stay open in the court of public opinion – particularly not in the most densely-populated urban parts of the state, where decision-makers were more focused on ensuring that the medical system didn’t get overrun. While no exception was made for golf, it wasn’t singled out either; parks, playgrounds, beaches and hiking trails were also closed off.
The early response seems to have made a difference. As of the week of April 27, golf in most counties in Southern California has been cleared to resume, with strict safety protocols.
Pennsylvania and New Jersey were among the first to enact statewide bans on golf operations, and states like Michigan, Massachusetts, Maryland, Wisconsin and Washington soon followed. Wisconsin reversed its stance on April 16, with an update that courses could re-open as of April 24 given a host of safety restrictions that includes no golf carts. Michigan did the same on April 24, clearing golf operations to resume immediately.
New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Washington have also given approval for golf operations to continue. In fact, only six states currently have a ban on playing golf.
Golf Is Everywhere
Golf in the U.S. took root in and around major urban areas, and the game exists in abundance outside of city centers – in rural locales far from dense population centers. In many parts of the country, golf has demonstrated that it can be played safely with modified operating procedures and extensive safety protocols in place for the benefit of golfers as well as facility employees. These practices may vary from state to state and region to region.
Golf most notably is being played throughout the southeastern U.S. and in golf-rich states out west like Arizona and Oregon, where more than 80% of courses remain open for play in both.
Nationwide, 58% of golf facilities are open and the percentage continues to increase significantly. Still, thousands of golf courses remain temporarily closed – the majority of those having suspended operations due to implications of the coronavirus, whether by choice or government order.
That inconsistency can be a point of contention in and out of an industry that has an annual economic impact of more than $84 billion in the U.S.
Even in spots where there were restrictions, golf was still being played.
New York City is the epicenter of coronavirus cases and deaths, leading to widespread statewide shutdowns that now includes golf. However, the latest clarification allows only walking-only play provided employees are only present as security personnel to ensure appropriate social distancing.
Procedures and Protocols
In a vacuum, it seems reasonable that golf should be able to be played in many areas given the proper modification of behaviors by participants and operators alike. The reality some policy-makers are forced to face, or consider, is whether all golfers and all golf course employees will be able to adhere to these new safety procedures.
Connecticut had been one of the few states in the Northeast that didn’t adopt a statewide ban on golf operations throughout the month of April, yet there have been local restrictions, including some implemented in areas where play was previously permitted. In Naugatuck, the mayor stepped in to shut down a local course after a resident posted a video to social media of golfers failing to adhere to social-distancing guidelines. In Meriden, the municipal Hunter Golf Course was closed by the city after large turnouts of golfers gathering in the parking lot after their rounds put players and employees at risk.
In Florida, which has the most golf courses in the U.S. and a license plate that lays claim to being the “Golf Capital of the World,” openings and closures had varied from county to county, but its three biggest counties — Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward — all cleared golf to resume at the end of April after shutting down operations for several weeks.
Despite the often confusing and confounding inconsistencies in golf availability and where golfers’ opinions lie in whether it should be played where they live, the good news for golf is that it has remained well-positioned to be among the first businesses or activities that are phased back into operation in areas where operations were suspended. Given its popularity as an outdoor activity conducive to distancing, it’s been a safe and appealing option as the gradual progression of business operations resumes in many states.
In other states – from Arizona to the Carolinas — it’s not business as normal by any means, but golf has gone on.
As do debates about play versus no play and essential versus non-essential.
For more in-depth research and insight on the coronavirus impact on the golf industry, click here to visit the NGF’s webpage for special COVID-19 updates.
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