Golfers took advantage of mild weather to play a round at Scarborough’s Nonesuch River Golf Club in March. Maine’s courses were forced to close by April 2 as part of Gov. Janet Mills’ stay-at-home order. Mills announced Tuesday that golf courses can reopen on Friday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Golf courses in Maine will be allowed to open on Friday as part of a four-stage plan for reopening the state’s economy, Gov. Janet Mills announced on Tuesday.

The Mills administration determined that golf is among activities that can resume using social distancing practices designed to combat the spread of coronavirus. Golf is included in Stage 1 of Mills’ plan, which takes effect on May 1.

It will not be golf as usual, though. The Maine State Golf Association is urging all of the state’s courses to adopt a strategy it’s calling Park, Play and Go Home: A Safe and Sensible Way to Play Golf.

The most significant change among a list of social distancing steps is prohibiting golfers from hanging around the course, or parking lots before and after their rounds. Other key changes will be keeping clubhouses, driving ranges and putting greens closed, limiting food and beverage to take-out only if offering it at all, expanding the time between tee times to further distance golfers, and making sure all financial transactions are touchless.

When golfers are on the course, communal touch spots like sand trap rakes, water coolers, bathrooms, and ball washers will be removed or closed. Players will be told to not touch the flagstick. Holes will be set above the grade of the green, or stuffed, to make sure a putted ball bounces off the hole, rather than dropping in where it would need to be retrieved.

Golfers were booking tee times, either online or over the phone, within minutes of the announcement.

“We’re excited we’re finally going to be able to open. The phone is ringing off the hook,” said Dan Hourihan, the general manager and owner of Nonesuch River Golf Club in Scarborough.

Guided hunting and fishing, disc golf and some state parks will also be opened in the first stage of Mills’ plan. Certain coastal state parks will remain closed.

Golf and auto dealerships will be the state’s largest, non-medical industries allowed to resume business during Stage 1. According to Maine State Golf Association Executive Director Brian Bickford, golf in Maine produces an annual economic impact of $350 million, employing over 5,000 people at 122 courses, of which 90 percent are public courses.

“In general terms, the MSGA supports the governor and her decision to allow golf as a recreational sport with restrictions – and it is important that we signal that golf is going to be played with those restrictions,” Bickford said Tuesday. “This really isn’t something for us to celebrate about because we know it’s a tough time for a lot of other businesses and people. We want to be respectful of the situation but we think we can offer a safe, recreational alternative.”

Mild early spring weather had allowed many courses in southern Maine to open prior to Gov. Mills stay-at-home order, which forced the state’s golf courses to close by April 2. Since then, the MSGA has been actively working a two-pronged approach to prove to Mills and other state leaders that golf courses could operate on a limited, golf-only basis, that would protect public safety and offer a welcome recreational outlet. The MSGA had targeted May 1 as the reopen date.

The MSGA hired the Preti Flaherty law firm to lobby Mills and Heather Johnson, the commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, emphasizing that golf’s very nature as an outdoor sport played over a vast area is suited to social distancing requirements.

At the same time, Bickford was consulting golf course owners and golf professionals. He said he held six town-hall style virtual meetings to emphasize the changes that must be made, and the importance of all the courses operating under very similar conditions.

Bickford said he believes the club professionals can act as “security guards,” to enforce the no-congregation rules before and after a round of golf, that clubs could undergo a peer review process, and, if necessary, the MSGA could act as an enforcement group.

“We were open (in March) and the reason we closed is that some courses were not taking it as seriously as they should have.” Bickford said. “It was almost like the first time we missed our curfew and we got grounded. We’re not going to miss our curfew again.”

Hourihan said his 18-hole course will be prepared.

“We’re going to function the same way we did prior to being closed,” Hourihan said. “The clubhouses will be closed, no personal contact between staff and golfers, people will have to pay online or by telephone credit card, so no transmission of cash or personal contact.

“We’re eliminating points of contacts on the golf course and also making sure there’s no congregation in the parking lot. After the round, keep your social distance and leave. It’s all about just getting them out to exercise and get fresh air.”

Prior to Mills’ announcement, Maine was one of just eight states that either were not allowing golf, or had not set a reopen date. Pennsylvania will also reopen its courses on Friday and Washington state, one of the first states to announce golf course closures, will allow golf as of May 5.

But in New England, courses are closed with no date to resume operation in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts. One concern Bickford said he and state leaders have had regarding reopening Maine’s golf courses, as well as its state parks and beaches, is that it could produce an influx of interstate travel, particularly from Massachusetts.

On Tuesday, Massachusetts reported single-day totals of 1,840 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 150 deaths caused by the disease.

By comparison, Maine has reported 1,023 COVID-19 cases, including 51 deaths, during the entire outbreak.

Bickford said he will be seeking clarification, but believes golf in Maine will be limited to Maine residents as long as the state enforces its mandatory 14-day quarantine period for someone entering the state. Rhode Island has a similar state-resident only approach for its courses.

“I think (the quarantine) kind of supersedes everything and makes it Maine only,” Bickford said.


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