Despite Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home order that appeared to include golf courses as non-essential businesses that must close to help thwart the coronavirus, golf courses in one western Wisconsin county are open for play with approval of local law enforcement and the county health officer.
Dunn County courses opened under strict health protection guidelines after a letter of consent signed by Menomonie Police Chief Eric Atkinson, Dunn County Sheriff Kevin Bygd and KT Gallagher, the county’s public health director.
The letter, dated March 31, said that golf courses could be open without violating the state declaration as long as they complied with guidelines meant to guarantee social distancing. Those include keeping clubhouses closed, removing rakes and pins from bunkers and greens and disallowing use of course-owned golf carts.
“We understand that times are difficult for golf course proprietors and the rules imposed by the state may be confusing,” the letter to course owners stated. “It is our goal to assist you and other members of the community in understanding what all of our responsibilities are to help prevent the community spread of COVID-19 while trying to preserve the freedoms we often take for granted.”
Ryan Parker, owner of Menomonie Golf and Country Club, said he had asked for an interpretation of the state order after learning that another course in the area was permitting members to play. After receipt of the letter, his course was open on Wednesday, as were other courses in the county.
“Play was great,” he said.
Parker said the decision by local officials was critical for golf course owners because, while April is not as busy as summer months, spring play still provides an important chunk of revenue for course operators.
“We were looking for ways to raise some revenue,” he said. Being closed “is a deal breaker.”
Parker said his course was open to member play only, not to the general public. Golfers must walk unless they own their own carts and wish to use them.
The clubhouse is closed and in order to prevent congregating players are asked to arrive just five minutes before tee times arranged by telephone. Under the guidelines, courses can handle membership sales and renewals or process discount cards online.
“We have the utmost respect for safety,” Parker said. “We’re following recommendations and precautions” as designed by law enforcement and health officials.
Parker said Dunn County has been “very low impacted” by the virus, with just one reported case to his knowledge.
The decision to allow play in Dunn County apparently caught the attention of some other course operators in the state. In response to a Dane County course owner who questioned the openings in Dunn County, Police Chief Atkinson said the decision “was not an override of the governor.
“The business is closed. The restaurant is permitted to do take-out. The interpretation is that if the courses don’t mind people walking about then that is up to them. The golf courses can still have limited staff on site to do maintenance, etc. However, the pro shops cannot be open as they normally would. This keeps in line with the governor’s order.
“This could get changed with further clarification from the Governor’s office or the State Public Health Office. Lastly, local police didn’t override the order. This was discussed with the Dunn County Sheriff and the Dunn County Public Health Officer before any professional opinion was given. We hope this helps clarify the issue for you and can apply to your course as well.”
In neighboring Eau Claire County, Sheriff Ron Cramer reminded golfers and course owners Thursday that his reading of the governor's order was that courses are not allowed to be open, period.
Bygd, the sheriff in Dunn County, said late Thursday afternoon that he had not heard anything from governor's office.
Following his safer-at-home order closing many businesses through April 24, Evers’ staff issued a list of FAQs that read, “Golf courses are not considered essential businesses” but indicated staff could perform “minimum basic operations” during that period.
Thousands of golfers throughout the state have signed a petition seeking to reverse the closure. Directors of the Wisconsin State Golf Association and Golf Course Owners of Wisconsin have also appealed to allow courses to operate while practicing strict health precautions.
This story will be updated with a response from the governor's office if received.
Mother Nature had a say Friday when a blast of winter temporarily closed the course ... at least until Saturday.