Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Golf, Bureaucracy, and the Virus

Government reaction to the corona virus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the golf industry.  Initially many golf courses were ordered closed.  When allowed to open, courses were under restrictions that make profitability uncertain.  Motorized carts, a big source of revenue, have been sidelined at many public and resort courses.  Food and beverage service have all but been eliminated. Was this necessary, or was it a demonstration of bureaucracies acting to protect themselves to the detriment of the public?  To try to answer this question, this post examines government action in Riverside County which includes over 100 golf courses in the Coachella Valley.

Golf courses were ordered closed on April 4, 2020 and citizens were required to wear face masks when in public.  The order was supposedly to “flatten the curve” though there were no evidence hospital facilities would be overwhelmed--which it turns out they were not.  There was also no indication healthy outdoor activity was a major source for transmitting the disease.  The order did not discriminate by age or health status and ordered everyone to shelter in place.  The effect of the order was to show the County was doing something and to shift attention away from government’s poor and tragic performance in regulating nursing homes where deaths were occurring.
The order had a tenuous legal basis.  The County  listed numerous government sections and the State Constitution for its authority.  Most of these citations did not substantiate the government’s action. For example, the order cited Article XI of the California Constitution which deals with the formation of counties within the State and has no mention of health regulations.  Riverside County Code Sections 442 and 533.6 also do not detail any powers given to the health officer.  Though not cited, which makes its enforcement questionable, section 533.16 does set forth the ability to fine and imprison:

A fine of $1000 is possible for and “any act forbidden by any lawful rule, regulation or order issued pursuant to this ordinance; if such act is of such a nature as to give, or be likely to give, assistance to the enemy, or to imperil life or property, or to prevent, hinder, or delay the defense or protection of person or property ; “

The Sheriff of Riverside County has made it clear he would not enforce the part of the order requiring face coverings.  His decision seems reasonable since the order would not stand up in court.  A law that is not enforced is not a law,

Bureaucracies argue their actions are science based but can never cite the science being relied upon.  There is no science behind the requirement to wear a mask on a golf course. There is no empirical evidence in the incidence of the virus among golfers playing with and without masks.  The current order as it is applied to golf is not evidence based but is a judgment call by the County Health Officer.  That officer, however, is not an epidemiologist, but a family practitioner.  Given his lack of experience and education, it is probable he just cut and pasted his order from another jurisdiction while ignoring the Center for Disease Control guidelines which stipulates masks are recommended but voluntary.  He also did not consider the deleterious effects of masks.  If not properly cared for, masks can become a hazard.  Remember when re-usable bags were going to save the planet?   Now they are considered carriers of disease and not permitted inside stores.  And what about those with limited lung capacity?  Should they be forced to breath through layers of material even though with social distancing they represent no threat to themselves or others?  The health officer knew he would be graded by outputs that could be measured (deaths, incidence rates) and not on the economic upheaval his order would cause.  Various City Councils and County Supervisors were in support of the order even though it came from a doctor they would view as marginally unqualified when it came to select a physician for their own treatment.

A revised order on April 21 let golf resume with some restrictions.   What changed? It's possible government officials realized outside exercise was more beneficial to health than sitting inside watching Netflix.  It is more probable political pressure from politicians prompted the revised order.  When they realized much of the order was not science based and was just an exercise in “confusing motion for progress,” their survival instincts kicked in and they asked for a more sensible policy.  No use irritating a voting  bloc of 50,000 golfers.  Again, this is just another case of the bureaucracy fighting for self-preservation. 
The restrictions placed on golf in the revised order demonstrate its basis is politics and not science.  Measures were imposed on golf to minimize the chance of hand-to-hand transmission of the virus even though there were no reported cases of such transmissions.  But how does that work in tennis which is also now allowed?  The City of La Quinta, home of PGA West, opened tennis courts for singles play.   Doubles play was prohibited because maybe four people touching the same ball is catastrophic while only two players touching the ball is deemed safe.  The City, just like the Riverside County, is making it up as it goes without regard to science or common sense.

There is little doubt the short-term restrictions will have a long-term impact on the golf industry.  The whole shut-down movement is based on classifying other human beings as potential death threats.  The golf industry, however, is based on the pleasure of interaction—playing together, eating together, traveling together.  If that interaction is either curtailed through social distancing requirements or stigmatized as unhealthy, the industry will suffer.  It is reasonable to expect golf club membership sales to decline, resignations to increase, daily rounds to decrease, and food and beverage sales to decrease.  

Golf has implicitly been labeled a health risk by many of the nation’s governors and the industry has gone along.  Courses have decreed walking only, no rakes in the bunker, players must wear face coverings, closed water stations, etc.  An independent observer would conclude a golf course must be a petri dish for the virus.  Admittedly, many of these actions have been taken to get permission from the bureaucracy to open golf courses.  But the image of the golf course as the safe haven it was meant to be has been badly damaged.  How many courses in the Coachella Valley have the financial strength, will, and management skill to navigate  troubled waters?  Time will tell.  One thing is certain, the bureaucracy will claim credit no matter the outcome.  "Things would have been much worse without the science-based policies of the Riverside County Health Department and the courage of politicians who implemented life-saving orders without regard to politics..." 

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