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Larry Stone: Washington golfers, officials cling to hope that coronavirus shutdown order will be lifted in May

April 11, 2020 Updated Sat., April 11, 2020 at 5:47 p.m.

Justin Wiles drives during the final day of the 32nd annual Rosauers Open Invitational at Indian Canyon Golf Course  on Sunday, July 21, 2019. Though Wiles made it to a three-way tiebreaker, Scott Erdmann won the title. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Justin Wiles drives during the final day of the 32nd annual Rosauers Open Invitational at Indian Canyon Golf Course on Sunday, July 21, 2019. Though Wiles made it to a three-way tiebreaker, Scott Erdmann won the title. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – All these warm, beautiful days this week, after such a long stretch of dreary, cold, wet weather in winter and early spring – they’re almost taunting the large contingent of rabid, increasingly antsy golfers in Washington state.

Just ask Eric Briggs, the head pro at Lakeland Village Golf Course in Allyn, west of Gig Harbor. Briggs’ home is on the shuttered course, and he is spending time this week cleaning up its restaurant.

“Looking at the golf course a couple of hours a day is not easy when it’s sunshine out and getting into the temperatures where you’re not wearing a sweatshirt or jacket,” he said.

“Our weather was terrible for six months,” added Sean Reehoorn, the superintendent at Aldarra Golf Club in Sammamish. “Now for it to be nice in some ways makes it OK, but sometimes it makes it worse.”

Under normal circumstances, this would be a perfect time to sneak in a round or two (or four), but of course, that’s impossible. Circumstances are obviously far from normal. All courses in the state – more than 275, servicing more than 350,000 golfers – have been shut down by virtue of Gov. Inslee’s stay-home order March 23 in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

The order was ambiguous enough that the Golf Alliance of Washington sent a letter to the governor’s office seeking clarification, with some courses remaining open in the interim. But on March 25, the word came back: It was a no-go for golf, deemed a nonessential business and activity. The letter from the governor’s office concluded, “This is not an indictment on the importance of golf, nor is it permanent.”

That last phrase is what the golf operators and aficionados are clinging to. The fervent hope is that on May 4, when Inslee’s order next comes up for renewal, golf will be allowed to commence even if other businesses and activities remain closed.

They have pleaded their case, a convincing one that includes the fact that golf is an activity highly conducive to social distancing, especially with the wide variety of safeguards that had already been put in place. They also point to the fact that Washington is one of just 13 states that has instituted a total golf shutdown, according to research by the National Golf Foundation. Approximately 44% of the courses in the country remained open through last Friday, according to surveying by the NGF.

But so far, all lobbying efforts to have the golf ban lifted sooner have received “a flat no,” according to Troy Andrew, executive director of the Washington State Golf Association.

“We’re trying to make it a positive – OK, we respect that. But we’d like to start pushing to show you that when May 4 comes around, and you do hopefully start to lift some things, golf can be at the top of that list, and we will follow social-distance guidelines,” Andrew said.

Many golfers are understandably frustrated, and urging the state’s golf associations to be more militant in their efforts to prod an immediate opening.

But Andrew said they have concluded that is futile, even counterproductive. Instead, the Golf Alliance has decided to concentrate on demonstrating the economic impact of golf in the state, as well as the positive social, physical, psychological and charitable benefits of the sport. That’s all being done with the target of having golf allowed to reopen May 5.

According to the most recent study, golf in Washington is a $1.2 billion industry that in 2015 generated a total economic impact of $1.6 billion, while supporting more than 22,000 jobs with wage income of $499.1 million.

Meanwhile, golfers wonder what is the difference between being allowed to go out for a walk, jog or bike ride, and playing a round of golf with all the social-distancing and hygiene protocols. Especially because other states are allowing their courses to remain totally or partially open.

It’s a gray area, especially in areas hard hit by the coronavirus, such as Washington. While precautions such as removing flag sticks, bunker rakes and ball washers, lifting cups outside the holes and posting signage to discourage group congregation – plus many other safeguards – can be effective, it’s impossible to protect totally against players who won’t adhere to the rules. Yet golfers are convinced the sport can be practiced with a high degree of safety.

“If you’re in a hot spot, we think shelter-at-home really means shelter-at-home – in other words, stay inside,” said Joseph F. Beditz, president and chief executive officer of the Florida-based National Golf Foundation.

“If you’re not in a hot spot, then we do continue to think that as long as people behave responsibly – a big if – that yes, golf courses can remain open, as long as they are following the tons of safeguards being instituted at courses staying open now.”

Beditz said they are advocating not just for the business interests of golf course operators, “but we’re equally advocating for people and golfers who want to get out and find some solace in the insanity we’re in.”

According to the rumor mill, there may be a small number of rogue courses that have stayed open in Washington in defiance of the governor’s orders. Anecdotally, a few people who live on courses haven’t been able to resist the urge to play a nearby hole or two. And others have tried to sneak on courses to scratch their golf itch.

“We’ve had about eight people we’ve had to kick off,” Briggs said.

One bright spot is that Inslee’s office ruled that course maintenance is an essential activity – a vital concession to courses in early spring, a particularly important time for aerification that enhances turf quality.

“It’s important for us to have this time right now to get these things done so we can prepare the golf course for summer,” Aldarra’s Reehoorn said. “Not allowing us to do these things might have set us back to where the golf course could never reopen again.

“The quality of the turf if you didn’t maintain it for two months, it might take you a whole year to get it back to where it’s playable again. Then you’re 14 months later, and hey, you’re out of your reserves.”

As it is, the golf operators see a best-case scenario where golf is granted an exception in early May, mitigating the economic losses they are experiencing. Business was booming in March before the shutdown, and they hope that’s the case when golfers are again turned loose.

But if the shutdown lingers into June – the start of the critical period of consistently good weather that golf courses in the state count on to overcome the winter doldrums and help turn a profit – it would be problematic, if not crippling, for many courses.

“Personally, I think we’ll be back on May 5,” Lakeland Village’s Briggs said. “And there will be certain standards we have to follow, how many golfers and gathering sizes. I think this weather right now is making the itch even worse, but once we can pull the trigger, it’s going to be guns blazing.”

The Golf Alliance of Washington delivered a letter to Inslee on Friday morning requesting that, like neighboring states Oregon and Idaho, golf be included among allowable activities, beginning May 5.

The letter states: “The physical activity and mental wellness golf provides can be a solution to improve the moods and reduce anxiety for many residents in our state. Furthermore, by golf courses being open and providing essential physical and mental wellness for residents, it will provide economic growth and jobs in a safe and healthy working environment.”

The letter also details 16 precautions that courses will be urged to implement to comply with regulations laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization. They range from instituting “walking only” play (or restricting to one rider per power cart) to ensuring restrooms are frequently cleaned and appropriately sanitized throughout the day.

In the meantime, golfers in the state will continue to look longingly at the weather and wait – some more patiently than others.

“I think it’s tough from the golf-industry standpoint, on the business side of it, because we all want to do the right thing and support the community and don’t want to add to the spread of this,” Andrew said. “But at the same time, we’re sympathetic to the golfers who want to go play.”

In a world free of COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus, this would have been Masters week, and golfers would be “starting to get the buzz,” Reehoorn said.

That buzz is on hold, more or less. But when the green light is given, golfers will be back, likely with more appreciation for the sport, and increased mindfulness of health precautions.

“I think it’s going to be as busy as we’re going to be able to make it,” Briggs said.

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