Keeping Turf "Woke" in the Age of Covid-19

Posted on Monday, March 23rd, 2020

Written by Cam Shaw

The current crisis associated with COVID-19 has quickly evolved from an isolated case of pneumonia with unknown origins in Wuhan, China on December 31st, 2019 to a global pandemic in less than 2 months.  We are only now just getting a fresh taste of what life may be like for the foreseeable future - a life of social isolation, quarantine and uncertain financial and economic stability.  

In many states across the US and now bleeding into Canada, various measures have been taken to begin the discussions on which businesses should remain open and which should be closed until further notice. The debate on essential versus non-essential begins!  It is challenging to draw a clear line between these two types of businesses.  In the developed world, we often have trouble differentiating between what is a luxury and what is a basic necessity.  I can sympathize with all owners and employees who find themselves in an industry which could be considered non-essential.  At this point in Ontario we are on the precipice of a province-wide ban with only a few municipalities having more restrictions than others.  As these restrictions broaden geographically, it will become more common to hear business sectors, owners, managers, employees and stakeholders begin to self-justify the purpose, value and necessity of their particular operations - This is where the conversation of turf comes in.  

  • Is turf maintenance an essential service? 
  • Are the sports and recreational opportunities turf supports essential to our daily lives? 
  • Are some turf sectors more essential than others?

An interesting debate, with much passion and cannon-fodder being offered and justified from both sides.

In the golf world, there has been some interesting conversations and posts across social media debating what golf courses should do.  Some say golf is an essential recreational outlet, especially in a time where there’s been numerous restrictions to normal athletic and recreational outlets such as hockey rinks, fitness facilities, yoga classes and other municipal public spaces like parks, dog parks and playgrounds. One might argue that in golf, a foursome could technically play a round with no player ever coming closer than 2 - 4 meters from another.  This respects the values of our newly adopted norm of social distancing - save for the handshake at the end of the round along with any tempting high fives or fist bumping after a hole-out or birdie.  It is a unique benefit that golf has over other sports in this particular climate.  Some courses here in Ontario, across Canada and throughout the world (especially in those climates where golf is played year-round) have remained open despite as a result of this characteristic trait. Others have heeded the words of the World Health Organization (WHO), and foreign governments (like China, Italy, Spain and now Germany) to remain closed since golf operations do not qualify as essential public services.  In my opinion, one of the biggest challenges for golf is adopting a unified front.  There needs to be a clear and consistent message echoed equally from all the appropriate industry leaders and stakeholder associations that draws a line in the sand which provides direction and support to those are uncertain how to approach this current pandemic.  My personal opinion favours on the side of course closure given the exponential growth of this crisis and the severity of the risk associated with not remaining in compliance with the social distancing and isolation mandate now issued in most - if not every country.  Will this be easy? Absolutely not.  Will there be complications and hardships, 100%.  But in the words of the New York Mayor, Bill de Blasio, a leader at the epicentre or the American pandemic "We are in a situation where we now need to choose between our lives and our livelihoods".

Public pay-for -pay courses will have an especially challenging time since they have no dues or initiation fees to line the walls of their operational piggy banks.  Private courses have undoubtedly been receiving pressure from their memberships to open as soon as possible - especially with the recent shift towards favourable weather.  Social media has been a flutter with the efforts and resourceful solutions that superintendents, operations managers and staff have come up with in order to remain open.  Having a green fee kiosk outside the golf shop was a good start.  Repeated efforts to sanitize surfaces and fixtures like door handles and on-course washrooms was another good effort.  Operating with 50% staff and staggering start times has also been a common SOP during the COVID--19 pandemic. Other strategies have included the elimination of all F&B services along with other course frills like bunker rakes, ball washers, and in some cases even pin flags.  There have been some especially ingenious methods to keep flags in and reduce the need for players to touch.  Some examples have been listed below.


Some creative ways to reduce risk of disease transmission on open golf courses.  Raised cups, no flags, pool noodle inserts and upside down cups all help to eliminate the chance of a ball needing to fished out or requiring players to remove the flag.


These efforts truly exemplify the resourcefulness and passion behind the golf industry, but in my humble opinion, they fall short of where we should be - and that is closed with only that absolute essential staff staying on to ensure the property does not fall into disrepair.  I expect superintendents and a minimized skeleton crew working under safe distance protocols to continue performing bare minimum practices like such as cutting to continue - provided staff are feel free to refuse the option and stay home, with their job protected, if they are not comfortable.  Even a skeleton crew to me seems excessive and risky, but I understand that the course infrastructure needs to be maintained and protected so that when these public bans lift, operations can be ready to go at the snap of a finger. I was pleased to read yesterday that Lawrence Applebaum, CEO of Golf Canada, released a public plea for all golfers to stay home.  I hope course owners, operators and members hear this message and head the strong leadership that Mr. Applebaum has clearly laid down.  The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has also just announced the postponing of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.  Most, if not all, major professional sports teams have also stopped play.  Do you see the pattern? Those who are leading the charge of closing their businesses are being commended by world authorities and the public for their vision, leadership, sacrifice in the face on this global crisis.  This is the example I think golf should be setting and with Applebaum's announcement, I think the message is beginning to set in.  A week ago, I might have disagreed - but a week ago, Canada and much of the world was a different place.  In less than 5 days we went from "socially cautious" to "national emergency".  States like California have even declared a ban on public outings and a very real stoppage to all non-essential businesses - rather than the suggestive approach the provincial and federal governments have taken here in Canada (although I expect this to change soon).  President Donald Trump has now released the National Guard to both the Pacific and Atlantic Coasts in order to provide support for this growing crisis - all because COVID-19 was not taken seriously enough in the early days.  We have a unique opportunity in Canada right now to do the right thing and make every effort to flatten the curve of transmission - its everyone and every business' responsibility.  If only some of us do it, the isolation and social distancing efforts become worthless.  Staying open means putting your staff, your clients, and anyone else who they come into contact with at risk - their friends, families, communities .... and especially those members of the public who are immunocompromised, elderly or at a much greater risk of death.  If you happen to be in a region that is yet to have confirmed community cases, then it is especially important to be particularly cautious in order to ensure it stays that way.

The landscape industry is also a flutter with peril and anxiety over the forced ceasing of all operations. I have recently read reports out of the US and commentary on social media declaring that landscapers and lawn care service operators have been lobbying to have their industry considered essential by state and federal governments. There have been mutterings here in Ontario and across Canada for the same measures to be taken but it can be challenging to lobby with politicians in the current political climate - they are a bit distracted at the moment. Landscape Ontario has produced a wonderful document on their website for those businesses who are currently in operation.  It provides steps, strategies and SOPs that will help to reduce risk and exposure of employees and clients to COVID-19.  You can find that link here. The challenge is that it does not answer the important question or provide unified leadership of whether or not this sector should remain in full operation, reduce to partial services, temporarily lay-off staff, and provide clear understanding of what factions are deemed essential and which are not. Perhaps this is more the job of the government, but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for their response. What makes this sector somewhat different that others in the turf industry is that the Canadian federal government actually has some vague but hopeful verbiage on their website that could support the need for property care as an essential service.  Household repairs and maintenance services are considered important for obvious reasons and this may be something that lobbyists can use to help those businesses who are particularly vulnerable remain in operations.  Services associated with accessibility and safety like snow plowing, security, accessibility etc... can easily be justified and supported by legislators.  But when it comes to the grass, it is a more challenging question; one that I think will have considerable difficulty being justified to local governments and law-enforcement if we reach a point where 100% non-essential work stoppage takes place like the 6 US states and 5 countries (perhaps more now) are experiencing.  

The fact of the matter is that this has presented a challenging and uncertain situation for everyone.  The decision to remain open and in operation is not to be taken lightly.  It is my feeling that this decision should be made keeping all parties and stakeholders in mind - more importantly all these groups should be consulted in the conversation. Yet that is still not enough.  This is why this pandemic is so challenging to control.  One person's decision to go out in public or continue working could affect an exponentially greater number of people, potentially resulting in death(s) and more harm to the economy in the long run. Appropriate measures taken now could reduce the length of this societal interruption. Failing to make the right decision today could result in this crisis being extended beyond summer and into next fall or worse. At the very least, I think it is important for each sector to have a united front.  This current flip-flop and divisive posture on the topic speaks to our industry's, and each sectors lack of ability to communicate, cooperate and reach solidarity when we are faced with challenging, unexpected and/or unprecedented pressures. Until that unified message comes, we are all at the mercy of our own choices.  

So ask yourselves:  

  • What public service is your business offering?  
  • Is it truly essential to the basic needs of society? 
  • How many people will benefit from your services?  
  • How many people are put at risk as a result of your services remaining in operation?  
  • Is the societal benefit of your services larger than the weight of its risk?
  • Are you prepared to accept your direct involvement if those at risk become infected or affected?

Considering yourself and your own needs along with the greater good can often be a helpful tool when navigating the ethical and moral pathway of appropriate decision making.  When the word essential is used, it considers basic needs for societal function and life.  Food, water, health care, sanitation, education, and communication networks are those that float to the surface when considering essentials.  I think of the risks our frontline health care workers take every day as they fulfill their obligations.  That is a worthwhile risk vs. benefit to me.  Can you legitimately argue that sports and landscaping should be in this category too? 

I will leave readers with one more thought.  If in fact the situation does continue to get worse; if more confirmed cases are being announced; if more deaths are being reported; if the public continues to waver on the severity of their own compliance with social distancing and isolation mandates, and you have not ceased your operations, then you MUST be willing to accept the fact that you are not helping to solve the problem. 



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