Local golf supporters were hoping the COVID-19 pandemic hadn't hooked plans to open area courses for the season — they were hoping it was more of a slow-draw they were trying to correct. And news from provincial health officials last Thursday has put those chances for correction back onto the right track.
Golf courses across the province have been given the green light to re-open during the pandemic — amid strict new rules. Courses officially opened across the region on Monday (May 4). Lac La Biche's golf course began taking tee times on Monday, with the first rounds of the new season starting on Wednesday.
Golf is part of staged relaunch
Clubhouses, restaurants and pro shops across the province will remain closed, however, as provincial officials slowly roll-out their plans to relaunch services. Golf courses were part of the long list of businesses and activities restricted during the COVID-19 flu pandemic. Many of those businesses are expected to have their restrictions lifted in the next phase of the province's re-launch plans. Monday also saw the re-scheduling of minor surgeries and the relaxing of restrictions on parking in provincial parks and staging areas. Boat launch access at some provincial parks will also be reinstated. Regular scheduling of dental services, speech therapy and other medical services were also made accessible on May 4. All of the relaunch categories so far are based on continued adherence to all pandemic protocols.
Those protocols are very important to Lac La Biche Golf Club head pro Lance Palamaruk. In the days leading up to Thursday afternoon's announcement, Palamaruk, who runs the pro shop of the municipally-owned course, was more concerned with health precautions than getting the tee boxes open, despite the financial hardships the delay has cost his business.
"I know that people want it to open, but if other things aren't open and there are health concerns," he said, adding that professional associations related to the course, like the national golf pro association and Canadian course superintendent associations were also siding on the side of caution. "They have all been working with governments on policies."
Palamaruk hopes golfers coming to the course starting this week will also put health concerns at the top of their list. On Saturday Lac La Biche course officials sent out an email to its members with a long list of preparations and precautions for Wednesday's plans to open nine of the course's 18 holes. Included in the list of protocols are mandated social distancing measures, and restrictions on access to public spaces including the on-course washrooms. Hole markers are not to be touched and only golfers who book tee times will be allowed on the course. While the list of COVID-based rules is long, the penalties don't take long to explain.
"Failure to comply with these policies will get you removed from the property," notes the information sheet.
"We are in a very serious time and fortunate we can play golf," notes Palamaruk. "We cannot ruin this."
"People will have to listen and follow the rules," he said,explaining that all the changes and modifications are based on reducing any spread of the virus.. "There's lots of things that we've been talking about."
The golf pro also says that unlike the often called 'mulligan' when it comes to a shot that goes wrong, there will be no second-chances for anyone going against the new protocols.
"It will be zero tolerance," he said.
Petition push to putt
During the forced shutdown that put many golf enthusiasts' dreams into a fairly deep bunker, players at courses and communities around the province teed up their opposition to the ban with an online petition that was circulated across much of North America to draw attention to the issue.
Lac La Biche County councillor Lorin Tkachuk signed the petition. As the municipality's representative on the Lac La Biche Golf Club's board of directors, he said the benefits of careful and COVID-conscious course usage can outweigh the challenges. He says one of those challenges isn't so much about physical health, but more financial health.
"There has been no revenue coming through the course, and we still have to maintain the course," he said, adding that a prolonged closure would have put a strain on municipal finances.
Tkachuk says the opportunity for some recreation and a break from self isolation is also on par with the opening of the course.
"Mental health is huge," he said, but cautioned that public health remains the number one concern. "Users would have to follow the rules, and that would definitely be enforced."
While the Lac La Biche course is open, Palamaruk says the doors of the pro shop and restaurant will remain closed until provincial authorities allow. In the meantime he said, as a new golf season means new products, any customers looking for golfing supplies, clothing, balls, shoes or equipment can contact him directly.
"We can take orders through the website and we can do curbside pickup," he said.
Tee times at the Lac La Biche course can be made for dates up to two weeks into the future.