Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele knows golfers are anxious to return to the links and he’s painfully aware that the county will lose revenue as long as parks courses remain closed while others are open.
Abele’s highest priority, though, is the safety of county residents, so in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, he is urging golfers to be patient. Gov. Tony Evers’ amended safer-at-home order permits courses to open next Friday, but Abele won’t open Milwaukee County’s courses until it is “100 percent safe to do so.”
“But it’s not just golfers,” he said Friday in an interview with Wisconsin.Golf. “Honestly, and it’s totally understandable, it’s people who are looking forward to something that is OK to do outside. So, we are spending a lot of time on preparing how we can do this in a way where we still maintain social distance.”
Told that Washington County was allowing its courses to open Saturday, six days ahead of the governor’s order allowing, Abele said, “I’m happy for them that they’re able to do it. If you would ask them, they’d probably agree the situation is a little different here. The density of numbers, just in terms of (COVID-19) cases, is hugely in excess, unfortunately, of the surrounding counties.”
For the time being, popular county parks courses such as Brown Deer, Dretzka, Whitnall, Currie and Grant will remain closed and scores of Milwaukee golfers will drive to neighboring Washington, Waukesha, Ozaukee and Racine counties to play golf.
Abele did not indicate when he thought Milwaukee County courses would be able to open, though he said he was hoping to make an announcement Wednesday.
“Part of what we’re doing is we’re trying to make as many of the steps as easy as possible and reduce the need for any kind of in-person interactions,” he said.
Evers extended his safer-at-home order until May 26, but he allowed golf courses to open beginning next Friday, as long as they follow strict guidelines such as no motorized carts, clubhouses must remain closed, payments must be made in advance online or by phone and social distancing requirements must be observed.
Abele stressed that when Milwaukee County courses do open, golfers must adhere to social distancing guidelines or risk having the courses close again.
“If people like the idea of being able to golf, the best way to ensure they can keep doing it, and everybody else can keep doing it, is to make sure they stay distant,” he said. “We’re not doing the backslapping, the handshaking, the high-fiving.
“I would remind folks that this is one of the only recreational opportunities … on which the regulations are officially relaxed. Because of that, there’s a lot of visibility on it. I’m hoping the classy people that are Milwaukee golfers will live up to that, because if we can’t maintain social distancing it will also be pretty visible and it won’t just impact our ability to keep the courses open; it’s going to impact how every level of government thinks about relaxing other restrictions.
“Part of me is thinking as we get to that day, 'Don’t screw it up, don’t screw it up.' Don’t be that big photo op that will be on the front page somewhere of why this won’t work.”
Oak Hills owner Jim St. Ledger said his course would open next Friday.
“(Abele) has no say in what I can do,” St. Ledger said. “I have to make sure people follow the rules. I do get a lot of senior golfers here and a lot of seniors like to use carts. They won’t be able to do that, so that will cost me some revenue. But it will be nice to get some cash flow.”
New Berlin Hills Golf Course, on the extreme eastern edge of Waukesha County, also will open next Friday. On the other side of 124th Street, Greenfield Park Golf Course will be closed.
“We are literally on the county line,” said New Berlin Hills general manager John Rader. “The phone has been ringing.”
Private clubs in Milwaukee County also will be able to open.