It's been a confusing week for Texas golf courses, with courses operators and owners, golfers and staff throughout the state unclear if courses could be open and players could play.
The confusion stemmed from an April 7 teleconference between Governor Greg Abbott and more than 1,000 city and county officials, in which the governor's office declared golf courses as non-essential. Several officials interpreted that to mean golf courses therefore had to close. That set off a series of events, including courses closing and re-opening in a single day, golfers flooded courses with calls in confusion.
Governor Abbott was pressed to come out with a public statement to explain his position on golf courses and whether they can remain open or closed. On April 11, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued guidance on the subject.
Here is Paxton's response in full to James Frank of the Texas House of Representatives:
"You ask for guidance on the interpretation of the Governor's Executive Order GA-14 and its impact on certain essential services and activities in Texas. In particular, you ask whether "golf courses, which serve as a forum for essential activity such as exercise, may remain open if local authorities require social distancing protocols and public health instructions be followed." Some elements of golf course businesses may provide "essential services" under GA-14 and the federal CISA Guidance it adopts. For example, restaurants at golf courses provide an essential service and may continue to provide take-out or delivery options. Landscapers and other workers who are necessary to maintain the safety and sanitation of the business are likewise essential. Such services may continue to operate, and employees performing those services may go to work at the golf course. Yet even when providing an essential service, golf courses "should follow the Guidelines from the President and the CDC by practicing good hygiene, environmental cleanliness, and sanitation, implementing social distancing, and working from home if possible."
However, other elements of golf course operations that do not involve services identified under GA-14 or the CISA guidance are not essential services. For example, golf course personnel, such as starters, marshals, and pro-shop staff,. who do not provide essential services, must follow GA-14's general rule: "minimize social gatherings and minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household." These personnel may work remotely from home if possible, performing functions like taking tee times, monitoring the course, or posting instructions or updates on a web site. Thus, ongoing non-essential services of golf courses should be conducted remotely.
With regard to individuals that desire to play golf, GA-14 expressly allows "engaging in physical activity." Golf is defined as a sport involving physical activity. While GA-14 expressly prohibits "visiting gyms," it permits activities like "jogging and bicycling, so long as the necessary precautions are maintained to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and to minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household." Similarly, a person is not prohibited from playing or practicing golf on property that remains open to the person (such as by holding a membership and/or reserving a tee time), but the person should follow the CDC guidelines pursuant to GA-14."
What all of this boils down to for golfers is a few things:
Golf courses themselves can remain open, but golf course employees who run the pro shop or make sure golfers get around the golf course in a timely fashion are not considered essential personnel. It would be difficult for a golf course to run efficiently without this staff -- particularly a public facility.
However, a private club could conceivably operate on the honor system of sorts, doling out tee times and asking players to follow CDC guidelines without supervision.