Staying The Course: Navigating pandemic guidelines

Robert Peluso, manager at Thousand Islands Country Club on Wellesley Island, poses for a portrait on the golf course green. Sydney Schaefer/NNY Business

For those managing north country golf courses, navigating the early spring has been akin to searching aimlessly for a lost ball that sailed far off the driver and deep into the woods. 

      Area clubs are working through the up-and-down nature of recent COVID-19 restrictions as it pertains to golf in the state, and many have grown frustrated with the lack of clarity and consistency from decision-makers as they attempt to circumvent the economic impact of a whirlwind start to their year. 

      Many courses in the north country are open — after a brief, complete state-mandated closure — and are operating under strict guidelines put forth by state lawmakers in an attempt to comply with social distancing practices to limit the spread of the virus. However, a number of other courses, including the Watertown Golf Club and Ives Hill Country Club, had yet to open as of late April and others, such as Highland Meadows Golf and Country Club, remained closed as they don’t have the ability to open under the state’s pandemic restrictions. 

“The rules have just changed so many times,” said Scott Hilton, the head golf professional at Elms Golf Club in Sandy Creek. “Every day (in mid-April) it seemed like there were different rules, and different golf courses are doing things different ways, and we’re not really getting contacted directly at all. We’re hearing through news and through hearsay, and anyone that I’ve talked to that runs a golf course has said the same thing — they haven’t heard anything directly from anybody.” 

    Golf courses throughout the state were given the go-ahead to reopen at their discretion under strict rules on April 17, which marked the latest of several shifts in policy since businesses started closing in mid-March to combat spread of COVID-19. 

    Several area courses had previously taken advantage of early spring weather by opening their courses under social-distancing guidelines set forth by the United States Golf Association. That was halted on April 9 when state Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office ordered courses to completely shut down to comply with the “NY on Pause” order, which closed nonessential businesses in the state. 

    Course owners were left scrambling to re-open eight days later, and initially, weren’t sure of what guidelines remained in place or if new rules were to be enacted. Golfers aren’t allowed to use carts, for example, which was updated from prior restrictions of one-person-per-cart and not initially made clear to area course managers setting plans to reopen. 

    “I don’t care what they’re doing, but just give it to us in black and white,” said Michelle Brown, co-owner of Streamside RV Park and Golf Course in Pulaski. “We have stuff coming from all over the place. They need to have one person making the decisions that can send information out to everybody, because nobody knows what the hell to do.” 

    Area courses that opted to reopen have taken a series of measures to comply with social distancing, all of which are posted on signs on course premises and on club web sites. 

    “It has been a roller coaster ride, we have been back and forth but are now reopened,” said Robert Peluso of Thousand Islands Country Club, which is located on Wellesley Island. “We are following all guidelines that have been put in place, but there are many that are still very vague.” 

    New guidelines announced through the Empire State Development, the state’s economic development agency, say that golf courses are prohibited from charging on-site for play, and must accept payment electronically. 

    Bars and restaurants can’t be open except for takeout business. 

    “We are optimistic,” Peluso said of the latest ruling from the state. “But still no bars or restaurants on golf courses will be open, and limited marina access, so we are quite a ways away from being fully opened.” 

    Normally, weather is paramount in courses getting up and running for the season in the spring. And back before the pandemic hit and restrictions were levied, some courses had anticipated a profitable season this year as no snow covered the ground in late March and early April. 

    “This is the spring we’ve been hoping for, for the last five or six years, being able to get out and play golf at the end of March,” said Brian Fairchild, the pro at Potsdam Town and Country Club, which originally opened on March 28. “This would have been a banner year for us, and it’s something every golf course in the county needed.” 

    Yet, the pandemic, not the weather, will affect both golfers and how courses are run, and affect business in the process. 

    “This virus will really be catastrophic for many, many golf courses,” Peluso said. “Not only this year, but trying to catch up at the end of year and going into next year. It’s going to be bad.” 

    Now that several area courses are open for business, they are required to follow state-issued guidelines and require that golfers do the same. 

    “When the governor allowed golf courses to open, especially in Upstate New York, it definitely was a good thing,” Carlowden Country Club co-owner Kevin Hughes said. “And the guidelines they came out with for courses, we’re following those to the teeth and we’re getting good responses from our golfers to that effect.” 

    The state announced that “New York golf courses are allowed to remain open but must implement all CDC and state-mandated guidelines, and promote safe, social distancing.” 

    Also through the New York Golf      Association, the state announced: “There is to be no access to pro shops, locker rooms, indoor facilities and restaurants/bars (unless for take-out purposes only).” 

    “We’re going to follow all the guidelines, it’s simple, they laid it out for us,” Peluso said. “And if anybody asks me, I stress any golf course to follow the guidelines, don’t waver from the guidelines, because that’s how golf courses will get shut down.” 

Social-distancing practices on the golf course that were revised on April 17 include: 

  • There can be no employees working at the recreational component of the golf operation with the exception of security personnel.
  • Security personnel can be delineated by each club (ex: A pro and the head starter) and will be present to enforce social distancing.
  • No access is permitted to club facilities including but not limited to the clubhouse, pro shop, bag room and locker room.
  • No caddies. No golf carts (except pull carts), you must either carry your own bag or use a pull cart.
  • All golfers must maintain proper social distancing at all times, this is mandatory, no exceptions.
  • Allowing guests is to be determined by the security personnel on the golf course.
  • Maintenance personnel are permitted to work on the golf course. 
  • Clubs are strongly advised to provide a printed copy of the new guidance to security personnel, as local law enforcement may come to a club and may not be aware of the new guidance.  

Other guidelines, established in March and still in effect, include:

  • Don’t shake hands before or after your game.
  • Leave the flagstick in the hole.
  • Don’t use rakes in sand traps, ball washers and coolers from course.
  • Don’t share clubs or any other equipment.  

    “They set guidelines that are easy for us to put in place,” Peluso said. “Like leaving the flag stick in the hole, you can’t use rakes in the bunkers or ball washers or water coolers. All of that is pretty simple.” 

    Potsdam’s course, like many others taking a suggestion from the USGA, has placed orange pool noodles at the base of flag sticks to keep players from touching the stick with their hands. If the ball hits the noodle, it is considered to be in the hole. 

    Peluso hopes that using common sense will help with adjusting to the new rules. 

    “It just gets down to making sure it’s one person per cart, you spread out your tee times so they’re not bunched up and all getting backed up on a hole,” Peluso said. “And you just go around and make sure that everybody is doing what they’re supposed to do, that’s why they’re in place.” 

    Yet the new rules affecting golf courses have presented new challenges. Peluso said the Thousand Islands club gets half or more of its business from Canada. But with the border closed, the course will miss out on those customers. 

    The state’s back-and-forth changes in rules has caused confusion among courses about what is permitted and what is not. 

    “We at our courses are not allowing carts, as that was a guideline from NYSGA and that was their interpretation of the mandates,” Peluso said. “There are many courses that are allowing carts and that is concerning to me. If we do not all follow the mandates that were set, they will close golf courses again.” 

    The updated ban on golf carts eliminates a vital revenue source for area course owners, who are also concerned that golfers possessing physical conditions that prohibit them from walking their round are being deprived an opportunity to play. 

    Under the initial USGA guidelines, area courses could permit carts with only one person riding in each. Hilton estimated that his course’s business is operating at about 10 percent its normal revenue compared to the expected income if full use of carts was allowed. 

    Brown said that the lack of carts has also been a significant hinderance for Streamside. She estimated that in a regular year with weather cooperating, the course would have sold around 1,000 rounds of golf by this point in the season. Entering the last week of April, the club had issued about 50 daily rounds. 

    “That’s a killer, it’s not much better than being closed,” Hilton said of the cart ban. “We live in a day where pretty much everyone that plays golf takes a cart, and it’s a big part of our revenue so that has definitely hurt us. The one-cart-per-person rule was good while they had it, but they had it for a short time. It cut our revenue in half with one cart, but it’s definitely better than nothing, like we have now.” 

    Carlowden, located in the town of Denmark in Lewis County, had been open since late March and reopened on April 20 after the state’s reversal. 

    Hughes said even with the new golf guidelines, he’s encouraged with Carlowden’s business so far, mainly because of the favorable weather. 

    He said last year, 124 rounds of golf were played at Carlowden in the month of April, after the course opened that month. This year, after the course opened on March 28, more than 324 rounds of golf had been played through the first eight days of the season as golfers took advantage of one of the few outdoor activities that they’re able to perform under pandemic restrictions. 

    “What really is the next chapter of what we’re doing is our leagues, which is a good part of our business as well,” said Hughes, who owns Carlowden along with James Potrzeba and Richard Pierce. “Our weeknight leagues start up typically the first or second week of May.” 

    But Hughes added that the continued closure of bars and restaurants will progressively hurt business, specifically when those league schedules start up. 

    “It’s going to start affecting us because we do have a big bar and restaurant service where part of our business is going to falter because we’re not going to be allowed to do that during leagues,” Hughes said. 

    “That will impact us greatly as well,” said Thousand Islands’ Peluso. “Because you don’t have people coming in after their round having drinks or ordering food, we won’t have normal dinners, so that will be a big hit for us.” 

    Thousand Islands also owns an adjacent hotel, which won’t be allowed to open under the state’s coronavirus ruling. 

    “So much of our business is golf packages, like large groups come in, stay at our hotel, play golf, come over and use our bar and restaurant,” Peluso said. “With those, almost every weekend we’re full. 

    “But this has obviously put a big damper on that as everybody in May has already canceled, so all of May is done with golf packages.” 

    Fairchild estimated before the state’s temporary halt in play that Potsdam’s course had seen about 25 percent of the players it would get in a normal season. 

    “We get quite a bit of business from north of the border and we are losing all that early traffic,” Fairchild said. “… Right now we have enough (money) to keep the lights on. We are still very much in the air. There’s one or two employees here.” 

    Still other courses are frustrated because they are unable to open due to state restrictions on how to accept payment from customers. 

    Highland Meadows Golf and Country Club, which planned to open in mid-April, remained closed because of the new, clarified guidelines. 

    “I called (state senator) Patty Ritchie’s office and I talked to them and asked them different questions,” Amber Black of the family-owned Highland Meadows said. “And they referred me to the Empire (State) Development. So both places I talked to said we were non-essential, so we couldn’t open up and couldn’t do any money transactions, like (golfers) couldn’t pay me, they couldn’t use a credit card, no money transactions and we were deemed non-essential, so we really couldn’t open up.” 

    Black continued: “So I said ‘there’s courses open, so how are they doing this? They said if you can have people pay online, then they can go golfing. You can’t have people working, but you can hire security and make sure people are not grouping up together, but you cannot be on the premises.” 

    Black, who on April 23 said “we don’t have anything set up online to do that,” was clearly disappointed. “We’ve got some weather and if we could have people pay and golf, it would help a lot. “But apparently, you can’t have employees working. And a lot of it is kind of a gray area.” 

    Highland Meadows’ inability to open is already causing financial concern for the facility. 

    “If they don’t let us open up and allow carts out and stuff, we’re going to lose the leagues and tournaments, it’s not going to be good for any golf course,” she said. 

    At courses that are able to accept payment away from the facility, golfers may book tee times in advance, either by phone or through an online system. Thousand Islands Country Club said golfers may either call to schedule tee times or do so online as green fees can be paid by credit card. 

    There are notable changes to each hole on every area course — ball-washing stations have been removed along with garbage cans and water coolers. 

    “We can’t tell the future, so we just kind of react as we can,” said Keith Hayes, who helps operate the Hayes family-owned Evergreen Hills Golf Course in Oswego. “If we don’t abide by those rules then we put it in jeopardy that we’ll even be allowed to be open, so it’s not worth pushing any limits. It’s just, follow the rules, and take it day by day.” 

    The economic impact will vary for each course in the region and throughout the state, but all are likely to take a substantial hit on their projected revenue. 

    Most courses have had to ease back on staff and work to limit the schedules of grounds crews without sacrificing the labor needed to keep the course in shape in the event restrictions are lifted in the near future. 

    For many clubs, membership dues have been slow to come in and at some areas, nonexistent, due to the unpredictable nature of the pandemic. The delayed start for some area leagues is another major detriment to area clubs that rely on that guaranteed revenue annually. 

    The Elms, for example, conducts leagues five days a week that were scheduled to start play on April 27. 

    “Any golf course that has leagues, that makes a up a huge portion of the revenue, so even just pushing that back a few weeks, we’re losing that revenue every single weekday,” Hilton said. “The weekdays aren’t typically as busy as weekends, so our leagues kind of offset that. If it’s three weeks of having to push back leagues, that’s 15 days of losing that revenue, and obviously the longer this goes on, the more that adds up.” 

    The lack of clarity as it pertains to golf courses in the “NY on Pause” order has led to other unforeseen economic perils. Brown said that she received information regarding eligibility for a federal grant from the Paycheck Protection Program late on a Friday night and by the time she tried to submit the materials the following Monday morning, was denied because the program had no remaining funds. 

    The potential fallout for individual golfers losing discretionary income due to other business closures and layoffs is also bound to hurt area courses significantly in the months ahead. 

    “It’s going to be huge across all businesses, it’s not just golf courses, but obviously the recreational activities kind of go away first when these things happen,” Hayes said. “You’ve got to pay your bills and you have to feed your families and spending the extra money on a round of golf might not be there for some people, even after all this has been lifted. The thing that we’re hoping is that we can give people an outlet to get out, get some fresh air, and enjoy some golf.” 

    Like much of the world facing an uncertain future amid the COVID-19 pandemic, golf courses are waiting for more information as the days pass and trying to remain optimistic about the potential for normalcy this season. 

    “I think we’re all kind of in the same boat,” Hayes said. “I’ve talked to other course owners, we’re all just trying to get in what we can and make sure the health of our staff and families are first and foremost, but on the other hand, try to get it open so that we can hopefully salvage as much as we can this year.” 

    Said Peluso: “It’s something hopefully we won’t have to deal with again. But you read the articles and this might last for quite a while, so who knows? But, we’re doing the best we can, it will be with limited staff. You’ve just got to keep plugging away.”