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In light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and subsequent governmental mandates to limit public gatherings, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Health Department Executive Director Gary Edwards took the step on Monday of shutting down senior centers, rec centers, libraries, the planetarium, even golf courses.
On the other hand, five of Salt Lake City’s six public golf courses remain open, with plans to open the last one (Mountain Dell) in another two to three weeks.
Why the difference?
“I don’t know what decision process the county went through. I know the discussions that I had with our administration. They wanted to know what we’re able to do as far as providing a safe environment,” said Matt Kammeyer, Salt Lake City golf director. “The approach that we took is, we’re trying to have a public response to the crisis, and part of that, obviously, is keep yourself clean and stay a healthy distance from other people; but that wellness portion of it is to be active and to keep yourself healthy. Golf kind of fits within that. That’s the approach we’ve taken that they’ve been behind.”
T.A. Barker, superintendent for the privately owned public course Fore Lakes in Taylorsville, believes that with so many other social activities shut down, and people having some extra time on their hands, golf serves as a relatively safe way to avoid being quarantined without a high risk of public exposure to the COVID-19 disease.
“What it really comes down to is, being outside — isn’t that what they’re saying is the safest place to be?” Barker said. “You come out here and you get some fresh air and you get some exercise by walking. There’s no other sport that has social distancing better than golf, probably. You can still enjoy other people but stay away from them.”
That said, there is no foolproof plan for avoidance. But both men say they are taking additional steps to limit customers’ and employees’ risks.
Barker said Fore Lakes has done away with communal course items such as bunker rakes and sand buckets; added sanitization stations for golf carts; stepped up cleaning of the pro shop. The course even eliminated the seating from the snack bar area to discourage gatherings there.
Kammeyer added that at SLC’s open courses (Bonneville, Forest Dale, Glendale, Nibley Park and Rose Park), employees are wearing gloves; equipment and carts are being sanitized after each use; all concession areas are closed (with customers allowed to bring their own snacks and drinks); and cleaning schedules have been multiplied.
Still, concerned that may not be enough, Kammeyer said the SLC courses may be rolling out some additional policies beginning Wednesday — specifically, banning cash transactions, and enabling the option to prepay online upon booking a tee time.
“The main area that we’re still concerned about are public areas — restrooms, doors, people coming in and out, cash transactions,” he said. “And being as busy as we are, people tend to back up a little bit in the shop. That’s one area where we’re trying to work with the public, to get space with one another. One of the other things we’re going to put out in an email [Wednesday] is requesting that golfers show up a minimum of 20 minutes before their tee time, so that they’re able to check in and we don’t have that mad rush at the last minute.”
And there has been something of a mad rush of clientele.
An employee answering the phone at Fore Lakes said employees there were “busy” keeping up with the demand, though Barker attempted to downplay that characterization a bit: “I would not say we’re super-busy; I would say we’re steady. It’s all just so weather-dependent this time of year. We haven’t had an influx of golfers.”
Kammeyer, however, did not claim the same, noting that spring has supplanted summer as the most popular time to play golf. And while he said he was not prepared to compare numbers right now to year-over-year figures, “I would say it does feel like we’re more busy than we typically are. And it would make sense because the county courses are closed and we have all these people with a lot of free time on their hands, and there’s not much else for them to do.”
His focus, then, is on ensuring his courses remain sufficiently staffed and supplied. The latter is proving easier than the former, for now, though neither is a problem area yet.
He is coordinating with SLC’s Public Services Department to ensure sure they have enough hand sanitizer, towels for the bathrooms, soap, and gloves for the employees. Meanwhile, employees who show any sign of illness are told to stay home; those with children now out of school are allowed to take time off; and the courses’ sizable number of staffers aged 60 and over are simply letting Kammeyer know they are not coming in, owing to their increased susceptibility to COVID-19.
Should his staff levels drop below a certain number, he is prepared to cut back course hours, institute “rolling closures,” perhaps even shut down one course to consolidate staffing at another.
“We’re getting inundated with a lot of players right now. All of our golf courses are full. So we still need to make sure that we’ve got additional staff on-site to ensure that all the cleaning’s taking place,” he said. “That’s probably my biggest concern, is continuing to have staff at the level that we need.”
Barker, whose father owns Four Lakes, said the plan there is to keep the course open indefinitely. Kammeyer, meanwhile, recognizes the situation with the Salt Lake City courses is more tenuous, adding that he is in daily communication with the director of Public Services, who is in daily communication with Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s office.
“I’m looking around and seeing everything else that’s closing, and I’m kind of prepared almost to receive a phone call that says, ‘OK, you’re closing, too,’” Kammeyer said. “But that hasn’t happened yet, so we’ll just keep pushing forward.”