Opinion: Gov. Whitmer, allow Michigan golf courses to open

Jordan J. Ballor

The status of golf courses under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s coronavirus executive order was clarified by the government this week to exclude their operation.

While the original order left the status of courses ambiguous, the Golf Association of Michigan reports on an update that explicitly states golf courses cannot remain open during the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order. This directive is a mistake and the governor ought to grant an exception for golf courses.

Some courses had already sought creative solutions to meet the requirements of public health and safety while remaining open. Pigeon Creek Golf Course in West Olive opened temporarily as a “Drop Box/Donation Walking Sanctuary,” allowing people to use the course to walk and play while observing basic “social distancing” procedures as apply to other open-air parks and facilities.

Part of the proceeds were directed to those in need, and before the county authorities intervened and shut down this venture the course raised $2,500 in donations for local charities working to help those in distress from the crisis.

While it cannot be argued that recreational activities such as golf are “critical infrastructure,” a uniform approach to all non-essential services risks backlash and creates unnecessary harms, economic and otherwise.

For Michigan in particular, where neighbors like Ohio have made exceptions for golf courses, the likelihood of some Michigan residents taking day-trips to play radically increases while Michigan courses remain shut down. And not only will Michigan business and citizens be losing out economically in such cases; where regulations create incentives to circumvent their restrictions in one case, the likelihood that other elements of the order will be ignored also increases.

If people view the shutdown of golf courses as excessive, they are similarly likely to view “social distancing” guidelines and other instructions as questionable and perhaps even dispensable.

Opening Michigan’s golf courses, with appropriate measures in place, is one small but important way for the government to fulfill its duties to protect and promote human welfare, including liberty, in a time of crisis, Ballor writes.

The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas provides a helpful insight into this aspect of human nature. When some laws are unduly strict, says Thomas, the tendency for people is to rebel against all strictures. Thus a rebellious people, “being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils.”

This is not to say that golf courses should be able to go back to business as usual before the crisis. Reasonable restrictions should be in place. Clubhouses should remain closed, for instance. Transactions to pay for greens fees should be automated wherever possible, including online payments and self-check in. Golfers should be encouraged to walk, and when that is not feasible, the same sanitization protocols for golf carts should apply as with grocery carts at the supermarket.

Flag sticks should remain in the hole; thankfully this does not require an adaptation to the rules of golf, as recent updates allow for the stick to remain in the hole throughout play. Perhaps most importantly, golfers should either play alone or in groups of people from their household.

But with such basic and straightforward conditions in place, there are good reasons to reopen Michigan for golf. While exercising due prudence, federal, state and local governments should work to make restrictions as least intrusive and disruptive as possible.

Draconian quarantine measures may have some efficacy in places like China, where people are more accustomed to authoritarian policies, although even in such cases both common sense and American intelligence reports give reason to question the accuracy of reports of containment.

Americans, however, are accultured to what George Washington described as “good laws under a free government.”

A free people ought to respect and obey the appropriate and necessary measures to fight an outbreak like the coronavirus, but also will rightly question and even be inclined to subvert or ignore excessive and unnuanced restrictions.

Opening Michigan’s golf courses, with appropriate measures in place, is one small but important way for the government to fulfill its duties to protect and promote human welfare, including liberty, in a time of crisis.

Jordan J. Ballor is a senior research fellow at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, and a postdoctoral researcher with the Moral Markets project at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.