'Golf is safe': Golfers, health experts say Ontario needs to re-evaluate closure of courses
TORONTO -- Following the Ontario government’s decision to walk back some of its new health measures aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, golfers and health experts say the closure of golf courses also needs to be re-evaluated.
Mike Kelly, the executive director of Golf Ontario, told CTVNews.ca on Thursday that the closure of golf courses is "frustrating" for golfers, course owners, and employees because the facilities have been safely operating since last year.
"We proved that in 2020 with record demand in golf… that there were no known cases of COVID transmission at golf courses, and I think a lot of that has to do with just how well the industry came together and aligned on the protocols to keep golfers safe," Kelly said in a telephone interview.
"Golf is safe, it's not the issue. It needs to be part of the solution," he added.
Kelly says golf courses across Ontario "streamlined the golf process" last year to ensure golfers were able to safely participate in the activity.
He said tee time bookings moved online, golfers were screened for symptoms, club facilities were closed, courses spaced out driving range booths, removing bunker rakes, left flagsticks in the hole, and increased overall sanitation.
"Last year, we asked to be the gold standard, like allow us to really set the mark in terms of leadership in keeping people safe outdoors. And we did that, there's no question, we did that… and we're ready to do it again soon as we get golf courses open," Kelly said.
The Ontario government announced new measures on Friday, including more restrictions placed on outdoor activities including golf and tennis, granting police sweeping new powers, and capping limits on the size of weddings, funerals, and religious services.
The new restrictions, which included the closure of outdoor playgrounds, were followed by a swift public backlash. Playgrounds were reopened almost immediately, and officials clarified on Saturday that police would only be stopping people outside if they had a reason to believe they were heading to an organized event or social gathering.
However, the government's attempt to partially walk back the measures has spurred more criticism.
London, Ont. golf instructor Johann Kinting says he is disappointed with the Ford government's decision after the golf industry has spent time and money last season to keep the activity safe.
"Everybody has invested a great deal of money and resources from the first wave and the second wave, and the golf industry as a whole has taken extraordinary measures on top of what’s already built in," Kinting said in an interview with CTV News London.
Doug Breen, the vice-president of Golf North, which operates 33 golf properties in Ontario, said closed courses amount to employee layoffs.
"It's a big financial hit for sure, and we have a lot of staff that we can’t afford to keep on if we’re not going to have any revenue coming in," Breen said.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford has not provided a reason as to why golf and other outdoor activities are restricted.
Following the Ford government's announcement, a Change.org petition seeking to reverse the closure of golf courses has gathered more than 40,000 signatures as of Thursday evening.
While golf courses were able to safely operate last season, Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, says the emergence of new and more contagious variants has increased the risk of contracting COVID-19 while outdoors.
"The differences is the contagious variants that we're dealing with now are more transmissible outdoors. We know this, so there’s no question that outdoor activities were safer last year," Furness told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
However, just because the infection risk went up, Furness said this does not mean an activity should be entirely off limits.
"I want people outside, I want people playing golf. To close the golf courses because we're in this wave right now, which is really workplace driven, I think is really perverse," Furness said.
Instead of shutting down outdoor activities, Furness said government and health officials "need to elevate public understanding about what's safe and not safe" when outside.
"If you don't let them play golf, if you don't let them play on playgrounds, they're going to find other things to do and those other things may not be safe either. So I think it makes sense to try and make people smarter, rather than to try and lock stuff up," Furness said.
In terms of transmission risk, infectious disease expert Dr. Abdu Sharkawy says "golf is as low as it gets when you’re talking outdoor recreational activities."
Sharkawy said in an email to CTVNews.ca on Tuesday that golf courses were closed along with the initial closure of parks and playgrounds to "ensure there was some recognition of equity being preserved."
"You can't very well allow an activity that is available only to those with means (golf) and deny something else that does not reflect this status gap so evidently (parks and playgrounds)," Sharkawy explained.
However, since the provincial government has walked back some measures like those around playgrounds, Sharkawy says all outdoor activities should be re-assessed.
He says the majority of outdoor activities can be done safely amid the pandemic if health measures are followed.
"Now that the parks and playgrounds are opened, it doesn't make any sense to keep any outdoor recreational activities limited so long as reasonable masking, distancing protocols continue to be enforced," Sharkawy said.
HEALTH ASPECT OF OUTDOOR ACTIVITY
Sharkawy stressed that golf and other outdoor activities are necessary in maintaining one’s physical and mental health amid the pandemic.
"It remains an important activity for maintaining physical, mental and social well-being, all of which are compromised as we deepen in this third wave," Sharkawy said.
Avid golfer Eric Smith told CTV News Ottawa that golf has given him an outlet to relieve the stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I’d say that I’m probably in more danger walking my dog in my neighbourhood than I am out on the golf course," Smith said. "We live in Canada. We’re cooped up all winter. Getting outdoors is the thing we look forward to the most."
National Golf Course Owners Association Canada (NGCOA Canada) told CTVNews.ca on Tuesday that it is "concerned" that the closure of golf courses is "depriving Ontario citizens of some much-needed healthy recreation."
According to data from the NGCOA Canada, there were 20 million rounds of golf played in Ontario in 2020 despite the pandemic causing the season to start later than usual.
The organization said in an emailed statement that last year, golf "demonstrated itself to be an ideal solution for the essential mental and physical exercise that health officials" recommend.
"Golf is a pleasant 15 km walk through 150 acres of nature with three friends or family, easily distanced from each other. For these reasons, golf is open and providing a healthy activity in every other province and state throughout North America," the organization said.
The NGCOA Canada said it hopes that for these reasons, golf course will be open again soon.
"We are confident that Premier Ford’s team will make that prudent decision at the very earliest possible moment in order to keep a safe outdoor activity such as golf available for the overall good of Ontarians," the group said.
With files from CTV News London and a file from CTV News Ottawa