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Michigan re-opens golf industry, for walking only

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

In an issue that turned oddly political in recent weeks, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has told Michigan golf fanatics it's finally OK to swing away — as long as you're willing to hoof it.

Golfing now is immediately allowed under the latest executive order announced by Whitmer on Friday, the same day she also extended the state's stay-at-home order through May 15. She also opened up several other industries and activities, including landscaping and boating.

Golfers are pictured at Red Run in Royal Oak on Friday after the ban was lifted.

The latest executive order is vague in regard to golf, though it was clarified during Whitmer's Friday morning press conference.

The order read: 

Individuals may leave their home or place of residence, and travel as necessary:

To engage in outdoor recreational activity, consistent with remaining at least six feet from people from outside the individual’s household.

Outdoor recreational activity includes walking, hiking, running, cycling, boating, golfing, or other similar activity, as well as any comparable activity for those with limited mobility.

"We've still got to ask some questions," said Chris Whitten, executive director of the Golf Association of Michigan, though he added he was pleased to hear the news.

Clubhouses, and thus their bars and restaurants, are expected to remain almost completely closed. Carts won't be allowed, the governor confirmed.

Beyond that, it'll be mostly up to individual courses to determine how to proceed — with most likely to accept only online payments, while removing or anchoring in place flag sticks on the greens and removing rakes from the sand traps.

The governor urged the installation of significant safety measures. She also ordered employers to provide employees with face masks, and pleaded with golfers to wear them, though it's not required by law.

Whitmer said the 6-foot radius of social distancing must be observed on the course.

"Please stay safe and do everything you can to protect yourself and others," Whitmer said Friday morning. "It depends on you."

Golf has been a hot-button issue since Whitmer began issuing a series of executive orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first one, after clearing up some initial confusion, allowed for golf; the second one didn't; and the third didn't either, though members of private clubs were allowed to use their courses.

All the while, many neighboring states were allowing golf, increasing the frustration level among Michigan golfers — especially as Ohio courses, including some in Toledo, weren't allowing Michigan residents to play.

"I'm thrilled that golf is back," said Jordan McArleton, a Livonia resident who coaches men's and women's golf at Albion College. "And if people are smart, I genuinely think it can be done safely."

Opponents of the golf ban have argued that golf is one recreational activity that is relatively safe, given the ability to easily social distance, while courses can pull the flagsticks and rakes, and ban carts. Proponents of the previous orders have argued that the outcry over the golfing ban is excessive, given what's been going on in the state, which has the fourth-most cases of coronavirus in the country, with Detroit a hot spot. Many police departments refused to strictly enforce the golfing ban, saying it was a waste of their resources.

The attorney general, Dana Nessel, also has weighed in publicly on golf multiple times, via Twitter, with one post upsetting many in the golf community.

On April 7, she wrote: "I just can’t hear about one more black health care worker, police officer or bus driver die while getting a barrage of complaints from white folks outraged because they can’t go golfing."

Asked this week if she still stood by that tweet, Nessel's communications director, Kelly Rossman-McKinney, said in a statement: “Attorney General Nessel’s tweets were intended to shine a spotlight on broader issues concerning the impact of COVID-19 in minority communities and the disparity of health care access for so many in the African-American community. Irrespective of race, the Attorney General was illustrating the stark contrast between those complaining about the temporary loss of leisure activities like golf while others struggle with the devastating loss of life.

"The brevity of Twitter does not do justice to the very real policy concerns the AG raised."

The shutdown has affected some 650 courses throughout the state, and 60,000 workers. The industry brings in billions of revenue every year. Nearly 500,000 of the state's residents are avid recreational golfers.

Golf-course maintenance employees, under previous executive orders, were allowed to continue working, to ensure the grounds don't suffer from neglect.

"The Michigan golf industry is excited to welcome our customers back," said Jada Paisley, executive director of the Michigan Golf Course Association. "The expanse of natural greenspace at golf courses provides the ability for players to socially distance. Best practice guidelines for golf owners and operators are already in place and offer social distance and low touch points. Thank you to Governor Whitmer for taking this first step.

"While golfers may only walk at this time, golf-course owners and operators know that they can sanitize a golf cart, similarly to the way a grocery cart is sanitized. They can be pre-positioned and sanitized and ready to go for the golfer. We will continue our conversation with the governor and her team on how this can be an additional safe option."

The walking-only policy will be challenging for some courses, particularly some up-north resorts which have long distances between greens and the next tees and typically never are played without carts.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984