It started as a minor news story out of China, and for weeks, it stayed there. Then, reports of the deadly new virus grew ominous with various experts saying the fatality rate of the new virus was over three percent. Early models from Imperial College in the United Kingdom predicted that 2.2 million people would die in the United States if no mitigation procedures were undertaken and 1.1 million would die even if they were.

The COVID-19 coronavirus is not only the biggest story of 2020, it will undoubtedly be one of the biggest stories of the 21st century when  the history books are written. The virus has upended daily life all over the planet. It wasn’t long before government officials worldwide began  imposing “lockdowns” in an effort to combat the virus. People were ordered to stay home and venture out to only “essential” businesses that  provided what were considered the necessities of life, such as food and personal items. Businesses deemed “non-essential” were ordered  closed, putting tens of millions of Americans out of work.

Unfortunately, the sport of golf was deemed non-essential by many U.S. governors, and courses by the thousands lay idle. This, despite  evidence that being outdoors was one of the best ways to not get the virus. This, despite the fact that the game of golf requires no one to get closer than six feet of another person (one of the mandates of “social distancing”), or that no one had to touch anything that someone else touched. However, other, more enlightened governors realized the benefits of golf and deemed courses essential businesses. These courses were allowed to remain open, with many choosing to alter some aspects. Namely, bunker rakes were removed and pool noodles were inserted  in the hole so that retrieving a ball from the hole did not require removal of the flagstick or touching the bottom part of the flagstick in removing the ball from the cup. Water coolers were also taken away.

Many private clubs limited play to members only, with no guests or outside play allowed. Some courses closed their pro shops, taking  payment outside and not accepting cash. One-rider-to-a-cart became the norm, and tee times spaced out at 15-minute intervals were implemented at many facilities.

Course dining rooms and clubhouses were closed. With economic damage mounting, states across the U.S. realized that they had to open businesses back up or risk a catastrophe on their hands that would eclipse any of the damage that the virus itself may have imposed – and that point may well have already been passed. Time will tell if the economy will recover or if tens of millions of lives will be destroyed in the  sense of mental well being and financial health.

Scientific information is now coming in, showing that not only the shuttering of golf courses was completely unnecessary, but that many of the policies that courses implemented in the name of safety were virtually useless in combating the spread of infection. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently stated that the virus is not easily spread through touch points indoors, much less outdoors. Golf Digest quoted Dr. Charles Prober, professor of immunology and microbiology at Stanford University, as saying, “[Handling the flagstick] is an extraordinarily ineffective way of getting the disease.” According to Dr. Prober, a series of highly unlikely events would have to occur. First, someone sick with the disease would have to be playing. Second, that person would have to get the virus on their hands through coughing, sneezing, or otherwise transferring body fluids on their hands. Third, they would then have to touch the flagstick soon after. Fourth, the next person to touch the flagstick would have to touch it in the same exact place as the infected person – assuming the virus was  still on the flagstick (more on that later). Fifth, that next person would then have to introduce the virus into themselves by touching their eyes, nose, or mouth within a few minutes of touching the flagstick. In other words, as Dr. Prober pointed out, this highly improbable.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, from Johns Hopkins University, said on that retrieving a ball from a hole presents “very minimal risks  in those types of situations. You can dream up any kind of odd situation where the virus transmits in these special circumstances, but that  wouldn’t be something I would be worried about.”

And since Dr. Prober and Dr. Adalja made these statements, new information has come out that the coronavirus doesn’t fare well in  sunlight. Willliam Bryan of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said DHS research showed the virus having a half-life of two  minutes in sunlight. This means that a maximum of 1/32 of the virus would be left on an outdoor surface after 10 minutes of sunlight exposure. Therefore, it would seem handling a bunker rake is extremely safe, as well.

Dr. Ezekiel Emanual from the University of Pennsylvania, speaking on the television show Morning Joe, said that in order to get infected, “You need to see a prolonged amount of virus over a period of time. That happens indoors, not outdoors.” He also pointed out that there have been “very few” instances of people getting infected outdoors.

With all of that as the background, the headline of this article asks what’s in store for the future of the golf industry. Right now, signs are highly encouraging. Courses that were under lockdown have seen large waves of golfers. Even courses that were never closed have reported a decent increase in rounds played. Golf retail stores are also seeing business return to near normal, and on many days, exceed their corporate offices’ expectations. That’s not only good news for the retail operations, but also for the club manufacturers and suppliers of these stores.

Demographically, golf is currently faring well. Most golfers have either secure investment income or job security that withstood the  economic shutdowns, so the majority of golfers should continue to play. The wild card is how soon the tens of millions of unemployed  Americans return to the workforce, as they represent a smaller but significant portion of the golfing population. It would be foolish to venture  a guess at this early stage, but hopefully the majority will not be without jobs for long.

The early models reporting that over a million Americans would lose their lives were egregiously wrong, as was the assumption the  infection fatality rate was over three percent. While current research from a number of sources, including the Stanford University School of  Medicine, the University of Southern California and the University of Bonn in Germany, as well as antibody studies done in Colorado, Massachusetts and New York all show the actual infection fatality rate is likely to be under one-half of one percent, the virus is still a very  serious matter. While, as the saying goes, “so far, so good,” the golf industry needs to keep on its toes and continue to promote the game and  make people feel confident that they can play without any significant risk.
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