There was no milling, morning crowd at the coffee urns inside the Wawa on Route 663 in Gilbertsville earlier this week.
Nearby, along Swamp Pike, signs outside New Hanover United Methodist Church and the New Hanover Fire and Rescue Co. informed passersby that all services and events there had been canceled. Local schools were closed, stores shuttered, fast-food restaurants restricted to take-out only.
Perhaps the only locales where activity seemed to be proceeding at full swing were some of the many public golf courses clustered in this relatively rural corner of northwest Montgomery County.
“There have been a lot of people calling in to play,” said Lamar Saxon, marketing manager at Bella Vista Golf Course in Gilbertsville.
On Monday, several foursomes, dressed to endure the late-winter chill, traversed Bella Vista’s hilly fairways. That same day at Raven’s Claw’s first tee, a group of women readied themselves for a round. And at Gilbertsville, even as an employee taped a “Clubhouse Closed” sign to a door, several seniors changed into golf shoes and loaded clubs into carts.
“Let’s see, you’ve got fear of getting sick and dying on one hand, and being able to play golf on the other. I know, for me, golf’s going to win every time,” laughed Andy Stoltzfus of Boyertown, a Callaway hybrid swaying like a pendulum in his grip as he prepared for 18 holes at Gilbertsville.
In the Philadelphia area, as throughout much of the world, the coronavirus outbreak and the precautionary measures it’s spawned have halted much of everyday life. Yet, far from paralyzed by health fears, many local golfers seemed to be feeling up to par and, for the time being at least, were finding courses to play.
Regional government and health officials have urged nonessential businesses, including golf courses, to shut down. While no one yet knows exactly how many of the approximately 300 private and public clubs in the tri-state region have complied, an informal survey suggested that perhaps half remained open. And those courses appeared to be drawing crowds similar to what they’d see in a more normal mid-March.
“We were open all weekend and it was pretty full,” said Saxon. “We’ve had a mild winter and a lot of people have the itch to come out and play. But things are changing hour by hour and day by day and there are people who won’t play because of the fear.”
The many public facilities surrounding the boroughs of Gilbertsville and Limerick could be a barometer for what was happening elsewhere. Of those, Bella Vista, Linfield National, Gilbertsville and Landis Creek were still open on Wednesday, while Raven’s Claw, Hickory Valley and Turtle Creek were not.
The list of shuttered clubs also included popular daily-fee courses like Jeffersonville and Paxon Hollow, both of which are municipally owned and operated, as well as Philadelphia’s four facilities – Cobbs Creek, Karakung, Walnut Lane and Juniata.
Private courses like RiverCrest, Overbrook, Rolling Green and Commonwealth National were dark too. And according to the Golf Association of Philadelphia (GAP), Llanerch, Waynesborough, Coatesville and Whitemarsh Valley were open but with restrictions on play.
GAP, an organization of 270-plus area courses, announced Tuesday that it was canceling all its events and seminars through April 15.
The Philadelphia Section of the PGA, which represents most of the courses in Eastern Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey and Delaware, said the situation was fluid and changing “hourly.”
“The Philadelphia Section can’t mandate its member facilities take certain action,” said Matt Frey, the Section’s communication director. “It appears that a number of facilities, both public and private, are closing their entire operations for certain periods of time. [Those] that have remained open are also complying with any federal, state and local orders.”
Whether open or closed, most golf facilities appeared to be taking measures to slow the spread of the illness. Restaurants, bars and snack bars were closed. Some shut their instructional and club-fitting operations. Credit card machines and common-use door handles were being wiped down regularly. Carts were being deep cleaned.
The closings have caused many golfers to funnel into the still-open clubs. On Monday, Bella Vista and Raven’s Claw, which shut down a day later, reported booking many tee times for regulars at Jeffersonville, the county-operated, Donald Ross-designed public course near Norristown that’s one of the area’s busiest.
“I feel safe out here,” said Carl Bittenbender of Reading as he prepared for a round at Bella Vista. “About the only thing I’ll do differently is ask for an individual cart instead of riding along with someone else. It’s like anything else, you use a little common sense and you should be fine.”
One thing working in golf’s favor is that it takes place outdoors and, since it’s played by only three or four at a time, social distancing comes naturally.