Courses are open, but operators dealing with COVID-19 flare ups

Like America itself, the U.S. golf industry is playing a high-stakes version of Whack-a-Mole against the coronavirus

While course owners and operators continue to ring up rounds like never before, a growing number are also contending with Covid-19 flare-ups that cost both time and money. The battles are being fought every day, with feeble weapons – thermometers, masks, soap, sanitizers – that only minimize the threat. So, like the bars and restaurants that shut down after becoming hot spots, public and private venues from coast to coast are being forced to temporarily close as their employees and members test positive.

The initial closings were reported in mid-March, as the pandemic tightened its grip, and they continue to this day. At least four dozen properties had been affected through the end of July, with closings that lasted from one day to three weeks. As for the number of employees who’ve been ordered to self-quarantine, it’s hard to count.

“There’s a tremendous amount of Covid out there,” said Peter Nanula of Concert Golf Partners, the owner of 21 private clubs. “If a club has, say, 500 members and 100 employees, it’s hard to imagine that 50 or 100 or them won’t be infected by the time the pandemic ends.”

Flare-ups have thus far been reported in 21 states, but the actual numbers could be much higher. Golf properties, like other businesses, aren’t obligated to publicize their infections, and few newspapers have the resources to monitor the spread of coronavirus in their communities. 

Occasionally, the size of a flare-up is staggering. Last month, 67 employees of Ansley Golf Club, in Georgia, reportedly tested positive. Nearly two dozen people who attended a pair of tournaments hosted by Club at Spur Wing, in Idaho, did likewise.

Of course, those numbers are exceptions. Most of the time, properties suspend operations when one employee or member tests positive. But one confirmed case demands further testing, which sometimes reveals others. One case led Stock Farm Club, Charles Schwab’s celebrity magnet in Montana, to find seven others. One at Mountaintop Golf & Lake Club, in North Carolina, became 11.

Even small flare-ups, however, can trigger domino effects that affect golf operations. When Eau Claire Golf & Country Club, in Wisconsin, learned of a possible positive test, it had to send virtually all of its kitchen and administrative staffers into quarantine. More than half of the staffers at Peninsula Club, in suburban Charlotte, reportedly stayed home for a few days upon learning that “multiple members” had tested positive. Five employees reportedly quit working at Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club, in Michigan, angry that they weren’t promptly informed when one of their colleagues tested positive. 

Needless to say, it’s difficult to track how infections spread. Invariably, owners and operators believe that employees and members who test positive caught the coronavirus elsewhere – at a party, maybe, or a hair salon. Also, of anecdotal evidence is any guide, owners and operators usually bend over backwards to ensure the well-being of everyone who sets foot on their properties.

“I’m not aware of any cases where people have gotten infected at a golf course,” said Steve Skinner of KemperSports. “We can defend our properties, but we can’t defend against someone who brings it from somewhere else.”

Although Concert and KemperSports employ government-approved defenses – deep cleanings, temperature checks, social-distancing admonitions, reduced capacities – they’ve learned that the coronavirus is a tireless invader. Concert has experienced flare-ups at properties in Florida, Georgia and Indiana, while Skinner reports a dozen confirmed infections among employees at 15 percent of KemperSports’ 63 public venues.

Other professional managers have also punched out flare-ups. Troon Golf has reportedly had cases in California (Castlewood Country Club) and suburban Detroit (Knollwood Country Club). ClubCorp, which has suffered the death of an employee to Covid-19, reportedly had members test positive at two properties in California, Indian Wells Country Club and Old Ranch Country Club, and a staffer test positive at Oak Pointe Country Club in metropolitan Detroit.

For Skinner, effective testing has become a major frustration, as it prevents KemperSports not only from distinguishing actual infections from false alarms but also from quickly stopping the spread.

“The big issue,” he said, “is the availability of testing and the time involved in getting the results. In some markets it can take 24 hours, but in others it can take six or eight days. It’s another thing to deal with.”

Skinner compares coronavirus-related closings to rain days, and so far, he says, they’ve had only a negligible impact on KemperSports’ bottom line. Nanula hasn’t calculated how much Concert is spending to prevent outbreaks and address flare-ups, and he doesn’t much seem to care.

“We don’t really think about it, because it’s just a short-term economic hit,” he explained. “It’s the right thing to do.”

But the battle being fought against Covid-19 could be lengthy, and the outcome will have consequences for golf operations. Even if owners and operators can keep their courses open during brief shutdowns, as most do, they may not be able to make up the income they lost in March, April and May if income streams from food-and-beverage sales, special events and tournaments occasionally dry up.

A greater concern, though, is the damage that might be done to golf’s privileged status as a sport that can be enjoyed without significant threats to health and safety. 

Robert J. Vasilak is one of Golf, Inc.’s contributing editors. He tweets at @RJVasilakGolf.

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