For a lot of residents of winter-burdened states like ours, Gulf Shores, Alabama, might better be called Golf Shores.
Wait, you say. Isn’t the city’s slogan “Small Town, Big Beach”?
Sure, that’s where the shores thing comes from. There are endless beaches along the Gulf from Orange Beach through Gulf Shores and Fort Morgan and beyond, but being of pale-skinned Irish descent I’m supposed to avoid excess sun so I go for the golf. (Don’t question my illogic there; I don’t play golf in a Speedo, you know.)
The area also has golf courses, lots of them, and based on previous visits pretty nice courses to boot. So earlier this month my wife and I packed up our clubs – hers were new and itching to be swung – and headed to a condo we had rented in Fort Morgan for a few weeks of relaxation and golf.
We relaxed, all right. But our golf clubs never got out of the trunk. When we arrived spring break was just revving up, with hordes of young people flocking into town and onto the beaches for the kinds of rowdy rites young people enjoy in spring, none of which involved six feet of open space between revelers. But that was also just as the world was turning upside down, and within days the coronavirus pandemic had put an end to the party.
In an effort to force social distancing and eliminate large gatherings, the city closed all beaches, which a lot of young visitors correctly took as a message to get lost – and many did. Water parks shut their doors, as did amusement parks, even as the tourist busy season was in full swing. Swimming pools at the place we were staying were similarly closed to all guests, and restaurants turned from greeting guests with open arms to handing them takeout with freshly washed hands.
Our space quickly became limited to the one-bedroom condo and its small balcony overlooking the Gulf, which was nothing to complain about. If you must be apart from the world there are far worse places than a balcony overlooking the Gulf of Mexico at play, with crashing waves and diving dolphins and enough bird activity to make reading difficult.
We were certainly not the only visitors hunkering down. When we arrived at our resort there were a number of Wisconsin plates in the parking lot, but each day there were fewer signs of America’s Dairyland. And that’s unusual for Gulf Shores, which lists Wisconsin as one of its top 10 feeder states for winter visitors.
“I can tell you we turn into a mini-Green Bay in winter,” said Kay Maghan of the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism office. “The Packer jerseys are everywhere on Sundays, and then they get into a little verbal sparring with the people from Minnesota.”
As they should. But for now there will be less of that here, and of just about everything else. Maghan said lodging occupancy had been at about 70 percent before the closings began and a big jump in cancelations followed. Her office is now projecting that in two weeks it will be perhaps 20 to 25 percent. But she didn’t have any quibbles about visitors’ decisions to stay away, nor about our reluctance to don hazmat suits to play 18.
We thought about golf, of course. Courses in Gulf Shores remained open, and all sorts of safeguards were being touted – single-person carts, raised cups, no rakes to be touched, etc. One course even had a “designated sanitization specialist” to oversee anti-virus efforts and make golfers feel comfortable, but in the end we elected not to play. There’s a fine line to walk between caution and paranoia – and I fell off in both directions many times – but we finally concluded that being 1,300 miles from home it made more sense to pass on our pastime and take no chances.
Even Maghan, whose job it is to keep visitors present and busy, could understand our point of view, and the cancelations of other visitors in coming weeks.
“No, that’s a good reaction,” she said. “Because we also have the challenge where you’re a small town and you don’t have the hospitals (and equipment). If we do have an outbreak we would be in big trouble.”
So we relaxed and watched the waves. But while the balcony was a warm delight for hours on end, when it became clear businesses were closing in other states we would have to pass through heading north we repacked the car and left a week early.
It was an odd ride through an increasingly buttoned-up country. Big rigs were still running in large numbers – that’s OK if they’re carrying masks and respirators, we decided – but never was it so easy to zip through usually car-clogged Nashville. I carried my own pen into the hotel in Paducah to check in – the desk clerk approved – but restaurants we had enjoyed on the way down were shuttered and dark.
Not everything was closed. In deep southern Illinois I saw a long line of customers waiting to get into a weed dispensary just off the Interstate. At least they were properly spaced, you’ll excuse the expression.
And then, into Madison, where I noticed a bunch of golfers enjoying the spring afternoon at a course near our winter home. At least here I can play, I thought. Surely it will be safer at home.
Which, cruel coincidence, is exactly what Gov. Tony Evers called his order issued that very day to close non-essential businesses, including – at least for now – golf courses.
Golf Shores, can you hear me? I might be coming back.