(Pictured: TPC Harding Park)
As more than 2,400 from the industry logged in for a “Coronavirus Virtual Townhall” webinar to discuss effective response tactics, other developments included two Connecticut clubs reporting that members had tested positive; TPC Harding Park in San Francisco closing two months before it is scheduled to host the PGA Championship; Augusta National Golf Club also closing; and clubs and courses in Michigan getting good news about what an order to close their facilities did—and didn’t—mean.
Here is a roundup and summary of notable club-related developments surrounding the coronavirus pandemic that were reported as the week of March 16th began:
- On the morning of the 16th, the National Club Association (NCA) hosted a live webcast, “Coronavirus Virtual Townhall for Clubs.” The two-hour webinar, which attracted an audience of more than 2,400, was moderated by Joe Trauger, the NCA’s Vice President of Government Relations, and featured five guests from across the club industry.
Trauger, also the Board President of Mount Vernon Country Club in Alexandria, Va., reported that the Families First Act, which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on March 14, contained provisions to provide free COVID-19 testing, paid leave and employer tax credits through December 31, along with economic-injury disaster loans.
Golf at Mount Vernon CC currently remains open, Trauger also reported, although all other club activities have been suspended for three weeks.
Trauger’s suggestion to clubs as they formed and executed their own response strategies was to “Err on the side of over-communicating.”
Dr. Catherine L. Troisi, PhD, Infectious Disease Epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, emphasized to the webinar audience that COVID-19 is a new virus not seen in humans previously, but that it is similar to a virus found in bats. Developing a vaccine is expected to take 12 to 18 months, Dr. Troisi said.
Older people (60+), along with those who are morbidly obese and people with a co-morbid condition (hypertension, for example) are at higher risk for contracting the virus, Dr. Troisi added. And while it is known that coronavirus is spread through droplets passed via coughing, sneezing, talking, singing and other means, and can be largely avoided by social distancing, washing hands frequently and not touching faces, it is still to know when a person is most infectious.
Alan Achatz, CCM, CHE, President of Club Safety Solutions, urged all clubs to sanitize doors, chairs, tables, bathrooms, hard surfaces and shared computers and phones. While he acknowledged that Easter, always a major event on clubs’ schedules, is approaching, Achatz stressed that all buffets should basically be shut down unless club employees are dishing out all food safely. He also advised the closing of club’s steam rooms and saunas.
Frank J. Vain, President of McMahon Group, Inc., discussed the role that clubs can play in offering a “safe zone” for their members. He also noted that members generally have better access to healthcare than a club’s staff, so managers should place an added focus on the staff’s well-being.
Vain also suggested maintaining communication with members every day or two; encouraging any staff who can work from home to do so; and to consider suspending members’ minimum monthly charges. To keep staff engaged during this slow period, he suggested redirecting under-used employees to other departments or projects.
If the golf course remains open, Vain suggested, carts should be limited to one player in each, and all carts should be sanitized after each use. For food-and-beverage operations, he suggested simplifying or limiting service, offer carryout options and closing all buffets.
Ray Cronin, Founder & Chief Innovator of Club Benchmarking, offered webinar attendees a look at the financial side of the coronavirus’ impact on the club industry. In the short term (through the end of April), revenue is being lost through banquets, outings, a la carte service and lodging, Cronin said.
Beyond that, Cronin openly wondered whether the country would slide into a recession, with some arguing that has already occurred and that a depression is a possibility. The potential loss of dues and initiation-fee revenue through mid-summer and beyond may soon become an issue and will largely be tied to what happens with the stock market, Cronin said.
Mitch Boyarsky, a Partner at Nelson Mullins, LLC, closed the webinar with a discussion on workplace compliance. A hot topic at the moment, Boyarsky said, is the legality of medically testing employees for the virus. While a club cannot force a test or even ask an employee if they’re ill, they can ask if employees have been out of the country or knowingly been in contact with anyone who’s been out of the country.
Many clubs wonder is they have a legal responsibility to pay their staff if they shut down. The short answer, Boyarsky said, is no—but a club must still provide a 60-day notice.
In such a time of fear and uncertainty, Boyarsky asked clubs to be “mindful and compassionate” when dealing with staff. While under “normal” circumstances, he said, if an employee refused to come into work the repercussions would be clear. But if that same employee now expresses fear of the virus, the industry is now entering into a gray area.
- The Greenwich (Conn.) Free Press reported that Greenwich Country Club has closed temporarily after a member tested positive for COVID-19 virus.
Club officials e-mailed members on Friday, March 13 to say the club would close that night, the Free Press reported, because they learned that on March 8, a member who was asymptomatic when visiting the club had since tested positive for the virus.
The e-mail asked anyone who visited the club’s grillrooms or squash facility on March 8 to consult Center for Disease Control guidelines and contact their physician if needed, the Free Press reported. The e-mail also said the entire club would undergo a major sanitization process over the weekend.
The Country Club of Darien (Conn.) closed on March 15, the Free Press also reported. An e-mail to club members sent on the 15th from club President Doug Rischmann said a guest who was asymptomatic when attending the Paddle Nationals in Darien on Saturday, March 7 had since tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.
The e-mail added that a deep sanitization process would commence on Monday, March 16, the Free Press reported, and Rischmann said the club would remain closed for one week through Monday, March 23, and then reevaluate the situation at that time.
During the one-week closure, The Country Club of Darien’s golf course would remain open to members only, but without associated services, the Free Press reported.
• Forbes magazine reported that exactly two months before it is scheduled to host the final round of the PGA Championship, TPC Harding Park in San Francisco has shut down operations indefinitely. The heralded municipal course is among a host of San Francisco golf courses to close their doors as the result of a public health order requiring that all city residents remain in place to slow the spread of coronavirus in the community, Forbes reported
The order is effective March 17 until April 7th or until it is extended, San Francisco Mayor London N. Breed’s office said.
On its website, TPC Harding said it would provide more updates on the situation as they became available, Forbes reported. But it is looking increasingly unlikely that the PGA Championship will be held as scheduled, because the newest guidelines from the Center for Disease Control recommend halting gatherings of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks, a window that ends just before the tournament’s scheduled date.
The PGA of America said in a statement that no decision has been made concerning the 2020 PGA Championship and that the organization’s leadership remains in close coordination and communication with representatives from San Francisco and the state of California, “evaluating plans on an ongoing basis with the health and well-being of all involved as the highest priority,” Forbes reported.
- Golf Digest reported that three days after announcing the postponement of the Masters tournament, Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club announced to its members on March 16th that it is closing down the club amid growing coronavirus concerns.
In a letter to members, Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley thanked the club for its steadfastness following March 13th’s announcement of the postponement and the difficult decisions that are ahead, Golf Digest reported.
“We are now in the midst of a national emergency,” Ridley wrote. “The coronavirus is increasingly impacting lives everywhere, and we have rigorously evaluated how this will affect the club and its operations. Our focus moving forward must be the health and safety of our exceptional staff, which is the heartbeat of Augusta National.”
“Beginning today, we are taking the necessary steps to curtail our operations so, by the end of this week, the club will be closed until further notice,” Ridley added. “We intend to maintain our properties with limited personnel on site, and we will support our many other functions by working remotely where possible.
“But this is about much more than business continuity,” Ridley continued. “This is about our employees, and the foundation of this decision is built upon keeping everyone safe while preserving the financial stability of those we care about most.
“We will continuously review this situation and send timely information in order to give clarity and comfort during these unsettling times,” Ridley concluded. “While we do not know what the weeks ahead will bring for our world, I know our club will emerge successfully and stronger than ever because of the support of our members and staff. Please continue to take every precaution to stay healthy, and thank you for your patience and trust as we plan for the realities of this pandemic.”
Augusta National historically closes a few weeks after the Masters ends, Golf Digest noted, with the club opening up again for play in the fall.
- In Michigan, clubs and golf courses scrambled to make decisions after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order placing temporary restrictions on the use of “places of public accommodation.”
Confusion initially reigned over the language in the order, which defined a “place of public accommodation” as “a business, or an educational, refreshment, entertainment, or recreation facility, or an institution of any kind, whether licensed or not, whose goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations are extended, offered, sold, or otherwise made available to the public. Place of public accommodation also includes the facilities of private clubs, including country clubs, golf clubs, boating or yachting clubs, sports or athletic clubs, and dining clubs.”
While many properties initially took this to mean that all parts of their operations needed to be closed, it was later clarified, the Detroit Free Press reported, that the capacity limits restricting gatherings to no more than 50 people only applied to clubhouses and other indoor facilities, and not golf courses or yacht club docking areas.
“It appears it will be up to each establishment to decide whether to open without restaurant and bar facilities and with the restriction that no more than 50 people can be congregated in one room at any one time,” the Free Press reported.
For both public and private golf courses, and for yacht clubs, “capacity limit and dining restrictions apply to the clubhouse,” Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for the governor, said. It was also clarified that the order makes an exception for food carryout and delivery services, and that golf course play could continue.
Gov. Whitmer’s executive order, which began at 3 p.m. on March 16th, is scheduled to run through the end of the month, but could be extended, The Detroit News reported.
With mild, late-winter weather in the Detroit area on March 16th, The News reported, many courses had plenty of play. But others did start to shut down because of the order and uncertainty over how it applied.
Workers at the Inn at St. John’s in Plymouth, Mich. Began to order golfers to finish their hole and then get a refund for the remainder of their round, a golfer there told The News. “The starter went to every golfer and told them that Whitmer’s order applied to them,” that golfer said.
At Detroit Golf Club, which isn’t yet open, members were calling all day to find out the status, The News reported. “They were wondering if we’d be able to use the golf course,” the club’s Chief Operating Officer, Derek Jacques, told The News. Detroit GC has curbed its restaurant and bar operations to comply with the governor’s order, Jacques added.
Jacque said he remains hopeful that Detroit GC will still be able to host the Rocket Mortgage Classic, set for late May, The News reported.
Other clubs, including Pheasant Run Golf Club and Fellows Creek Golf Club, both in Canton, Mich., did decide to close entirely, The News reported.