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Sonoma County is reopening golf courses

Duffers, hackers and scratch handicappers rejoice. Golf is returning to Sonoma County.

Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase, as part of her detailed revision of the county’s stay-at-home order, is allowing local golf courses to reopen to the public (or to members, in the case of private clubs) as soon as Monday morning. They had been officially?off-limits for more than a month.

Mase pointed to the sport as an outdoor activity that is more amenable than most to coronavirus-era social distancing.

“Two people can play golf, unlike basketball where you need many more people,” she said. “So those are the kinds of things that we looked at. And inherently it just seemed like it was a lower-risk activity.”

As in other parts of California, golfing on Sonoma County’s 16 courses will come with a long list of county-imposed restrictions.

For one, they are open only to Sonoma County residents showing proper ID. Players will be required to wear face coverings and maintain 6 feet of distance at all times. Golfers cannot share equipment, and must ride alone in carts. No private lessons, group instruction or tournament-style events allowed. There will be no community tees or water stations or ice chests or bunker rakes or ball washers. Cups must be filled to within one inch of green level, and flags can’t be removed.

Each course is responsible for providing a site-specific COVID-19 “supervisor” to enforce regulations. The businesses must sanitize riding carts and hand carts after each usage. Golfers must be spaced apart at the driving range.

One note that is sure to delight local swingers: While neighboring Napa County is allowing only two golfers per group, Sonoma County will accept traditional foursomes.

This all came as welcome news for the county’s courses, which have been without revenue for a month.

“It’s exciting,” said Bob Borowicz, director of golf at Bennett Valley Golf Course. “I think it’s very doable, as far as the ?requirements. They’re not unrealistic, they’re not too restrictive. I think it’s something we can all make happen going forward.”

Friday afternoon, Borowicz was already taking tee times for Monday, starting at 9:30 a.m. When he spoke to The Press Democrat late in the day, he was booked through noon.

Scanning the list of updated requirements, which he had just printed out at his home, Borowicz said he and his staff had already been preparing for many of them. The Bennett Valley pro shop has plastic screens to divide cashiers and customers, and is set up so golfers can enter through one door and leave through another. Borowicz removed every other stall on the driving range to ensure proper spacing.

Some of the new requirements will be a work in progress, at least for a few days. Borowicz is getting new signs printed to make the rules clear. He figures he won’t be able to offer take-out food right away (seated dining is prohibited), and he’ll probably have to hire a COVID supervisor. All in all, though, the Bennett Valley director is relieved to be in business again.

Borowicz is especially gratified by a couple gifts of leniency. One is the use of golf carts. If denied, he feared the course would run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Most important was Mase not insisting on the two-per-group standard, which would have effectively cut a course’s profits in half.

“It’s huge,” Borowicz said. “We were doing the numbers on that. Twosomes, at best you’re looking to break even, as far as revenue generated. In fact, I think there might have been some courses that, after a while, just said, ‘This is not working out.’ I’m not sure what they would have done. And it won’t be any more of an issue keeping four people apart than two.”

Borowicz is convinced his biggest challenge will be maintaining the supply of sanitizer needed to clean carts, balls, range buckets, keyboards, telephones, doorknobs and other common surfaces, not to mention hands.

“I was talking to people in Sacramento (where courses were never shut down), and they said, ‘We’ve had 20 different suppliers. We’re calling daily to find this stuff,’” Borowicz noted. “There will probably be some times we don’t have hand sanitizer available.”

After a golf-less month, those feel like lesser problems.

Dr. Mase’s loosening of the existing shelter order brings Sonoma County in line with six Bay Area counties to the south, and with Napa, all of which were already allowing access to golf courses with proper safety protocols.

The change in rules here might even be a relief to non-golfers. In the absence of sanctioned golf, some courses had seen an explosion of people using the outdoor spaces for other forms of recreation - walking, running, biking, even fishing in the water hazards. And yes, some clandestine golfing, too. It became obvious to course managers and neighbors alike that a return to organized play might actually improve social distancing.

“We were already gonna open the golf courses for people to walk on the paths, and that kind of thing,” Mase said. “Golf courses are a lot like parks, so that was kind of part of our parks order. But then when we weighed the risk stratification of golf as an activity, we decided that was a very low-risk activity.”

Over the coming weeks, golf courses might be more than just a source of outdoor activity and mental decompression for Sonoma County residents. Mase sees them as a potential petri dish to study a virus that has killed somewhere around 65,000 Americans and brought the national economy to its knees - a virus we still don’t know enough about.

“You know, we have to start opening certain things like this to see what the risk is, also,” Mase said. “So we’ll be very carefully monitoring, first of all, are people adhering to the protocols in that setting? And are there any cases that come up? And it will be interesting to follow the data and see.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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