Is it safe to play golf? County says no

As the world has collapsed inward upon us, some people in Sonoma County have found refuge in a familiar setting: the golf course. It’s one place they can stretch their legs, soak up some sunshine, enjoy human company and be thoroughly frustrated by something other than the oblivion of self-enforced quarantine.

Don’t get used to it. The golf is probably going away, too, at least here. Northwood Golf Course in Monte Rio closed Monday. Foxtail Golf Club (North and South) in Rohnert Park turned off the lights Tuesday. That means just two of Sonoma County’s 10 public courses - Sebastopol and Sea Ranch - are still open for business.

Late Monday night, Windsor and Rooster Run golf clubs both announced that, in accordance with a new Sonoma County order pertaining to parks and recreation, they would be closed until further notice beginning Tuesday.

“More power to those guys who can be open, I have no resentment toward them at all,” said Bob Borowicz, director of golf at Bennett Valley Golf Course, who estimates his course has already lost between $35,000 and $45,000 during the shutdown. “But it doesn’t seem fair we’re all in the same county, and supposedly the city is following guidelines from county but some are allowed to open. That’s the frustrating part.”

Bennett Valley was the first local course to fall victim to the coronavirus pandemic. Almost immediately after Sonoma County issued its shelter-in-place order on March 17, the city of Santa Rosa closed its only municipally owned golf course.

“Initially, when the city told me to close, it was a little burden off my mind to make the call,” Borowicz admitted. “Before that it was, ‘Do I or not?’?”

For the city, the “do I or not” decision was easy. The county had posted a long list of prohibitions and suggestions regarding social contact and public gatherings.

“Based on our review of the Sonoma County Public Health Officer’s order, they recommend certain operations close,” said Jason Nutt, director of transportation and public works for the City of Santa Rosa. “While not specifically outlined in the order, we felt a golf course fit the recommendations as being non-essential.”

That’s a reasonable position. And Nutt insists the city took the decision seriously, surveying how other golf courses around the Bay Area were handling shelter-in-place. The majority, he said, were closing. When golfers expressed disappointment in Bennett Valley’s dormancy, Nutt’s office contacted the county health officer one more time, over the weekend, to ask specifically about golf. He sent me a link to a portion of the county’s FAQ on the subject.

The question: Can a private golf course operate under the Order?

The one-word answer: No.

I reached out to two county agencies, the Health Services Department and Department of Emergency Management, but did not receive a reply. I get it. They are under a tremendous burden right now.

Someone answering the phone at one local golf course told me he’d heard a rumor that the state was on the verge of issuing a sweeping no-golf edict (as the city of Los Angeles did Sunday). When I contacted the California Department of Public Health to ask about such a measure, they merely referred me to the state’s general guidance on social distancing.

My guess is that Sonoma County has been too busy to enforce the golf blackout, that the courses that have closed thus far have done it on their accord as they look at the writing on the wall. Monday morning, a Santa Rosa woman named Leigh Ann Ross posted a photo on the County of Sonoma’s Facebook page showing three men walking one of the Foxtail courses. Her comment read, in part: “Here’s a lovely threesome on the course in RP, right now! They are NOT social distancing. These 3 can infect how many???”

Foxtail decided to close the same day. Not to insinuate it was a direct response, but it would be hard to stay open in the face of county regulations and public shaming.

Like a lot of what we’ve been dealing with, the golf course thing is a complicated issue. The basic question is this: Can you safely play a round of golf during a pandemic?

Borowicz believes you can.

He ticked off a number of measures Bennett Valley was prepared to take before the city shut him down: Two golf shop work stations, six feet apart. Credit card transactions through a window, workers wearing gloves. One person per cart, with all the carts thoroughly sanitized. Alternating stations occupied on the driving range. Keep the flag stick planted. Foam spray in the cups so the ball won’t sink. Bathrooms open, but one at a time, please.

A recent email from Windsor Golf Course informed regulars they could check in and pay for rounds online. Foxtail, before the decision to shut down, told its clients that rakes and ball washers had been removed.

Is that enough? Even Borowicz admits there is gray area.

“I could never say it’s 100 percent safe,” he said. “We had a few guys who went out there and played. They’re walking, they could be 20 yards apart. They meet on the green, keep their space. Whether we can continue that on a 300-person day, I can’t say for sure.”

It seems entirely possible to play this game without infecting your fellow golfers. There have been a lot of people walking around my neighborhood recently. Yours too, I imagine. It feels safe enough, because you can keep your distance outdoors. That’s even more true on an expanse of fairways, greens and out-of-bounds clusters of trees.

The problem is, that doesn’t guarantee safety. As we’ve seen with restaurants (before shelter-in-place) and beaches and supermarkets, common sense tends to break down in public settings. Give people a chance to be stupid and swap germs with their neighbors and, unfortunately, they probably will. So yeah, a golf course is not risk-free in the age of COVID-19.

As to whether the course is safe enough to justify golfing during this contagion, I’ll let you form your own judgment on that. I will say this. Getting out of the house is vitally important to mental health right now. I like to do it on a hiking trail. Some people prefer the links, and I empathize.

“A majority of seniors play our place,” Borowicz said of Bennett Valley. “They’re not out there for golf so much as exercise, getting outdoors and the social aspect of it. For a lot of these guys, it’s all they have.”

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