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Golfers back on course after provincial about-face

On hold even as public health officials encouraged outdoor activity, golf is back on the agenda as of last weekend. The provincial government had been under plenty of pressure  to expand the number of options under pandemic guidelines.

When Premier Doug Ford first closed golf courses across Ontario on April 17 in response to rapidly rising COVID-19 case numbers, golfers and course operators alike were mystified as to the reasoning.

“It was pretty frustrating that we were closed in the first place: we really didn’t see any reason why we should have been,” said Doug Breen, regional vice-president with GolfNorth Properties.

For Breen and GolfNorth Properties, which owns dozens of courses in Ontario including Conestoga Golf Club and Conference Centre, the experience they received over last year’s season was evidence enough that golf poses a very low risk for COVID-19 transmissions.

“Last year… 1.8 million golfers played almost 30 million rounds of golf in Ontario alone. And we track every single person that comes on the property – we have their names or addresses in case we need it for contact tracing – and not a single golf course had a case of infection anywhere in the province,” said Breen.

After a season that proved golfing was a safe activity to participate in, and backing from Ontario’s Science Advisory Table on the safety of outdoor activities, the closure blindsided the industry.

“It came as a bit of a shock,” said Fraser Stalkie, director of golf operations at Merry-Hill Golf Club. “Given the success that the industry had last year at preventing any cases of transmission, we felt like we would continue to be able to operate safely.”

As the wavering lockdown rules come and go, outdoor recreational industries are finding it difficult to get the most out of this season. Breen said the company realized that being agile in the rapidly changing pandemic landscape is a must.

“They did exactly the same thing last year, they let us know on Thursday that we could open on Saturday for the long weekend… so we did sort of anticipate that it was a possibility,” said Breen. “But it’s always a risky move to ramp up, especially when you start [bringing in] perishable inventory.”

That risk was realized by Breen during the five weeks of lockdown. Even though no golfers were on the course, staff was still needed to maintain the grounds. With no funding coming in, cuts had to be made.

“Expenses don’t go away,” said Breen. “We still have to cut the grass, we still have to fertilize the grass… we obviously ended up laying off an awful lot of people, which was also really difficult to do.”

In addition to the financial burden, the shutdown added logistical difficulties to courses who had tee times and lessons booked well in advance.

“It’s had a huge impact on our lessons and teaching capabilities,” said Stalkie. “Because we would have been booking and starting lessons all through the month of May, and it has simply created a huge backlog of that kind of activity.”

Even with the financial and logistical issues imposed by the shutdown, there is a silver lining. The campaign to reopen courses brought the golfing community together in a sign of solidarity.

“The groundswell of people speaking in support of golf was really heartwarming,” said Stalkie.

While GolfNorth Properties move forward and operate under a cloud of unknowns, the one thing they do know is that the golfing community has each other’s back.

“We appreciate all the people who wrote letters, made phone calls and sent emails to their MPPs on our behalf… it’s been nice to have the support of the public,” said Breen. “Now what we have to do is rise to the occasion.”

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