Premier Doug Ford is fighting a golf war against some in his own Progressive Conservative caucus, the Star has learned.
Tory MPPs were told earlier this week that golf courses will remain closed until at least June 2 as part of the lockdown measures designed to curb the spread of COVID-19.
That’s despite the fact the current stay-home order is scheduled to expire May 19, though Solicitor General Sylvia Jones is widely expected to extend it by two weeks until June 2.
“We get more calls about this (from constituents) than anything else,” said one frustrated Conservative MPP, who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke confidentially in order to discuss internal deliberations.
“Golfers are upset and I don’t blame them,” added the member, insisting those who hit the links are part of the Tories’ voting “base.”
Indeed, one irate PC donor confided he has been rejecting the party’s recent emailed fundraising appeals with a one-word response: “Golf.”
Another MPP said their constituency office is fielding “dozens” of calls and emails about golf courses and other outdoor recreational facilities being closed.
“But they told us they can’t be opening golf courses while schools remain closed,” the MPP said, adding that at Tuesday’s virtual caucus meeting, where things got heated, Ford’s advisers were very blunt.
“(A senior aide) said only 10 per cent of Ontarians play golf and only five per cent are avid golfers, so this doesn’t really affect a lot of people,” the Tory said.
An official close to Ford confirmed that they made no apologies when briefing MPPs.
“A stay-home order means you should stay home. It’s the same reason why ski resorts were kept closed (during the previous lockdown),” the official said.
“Golf is a social sport where people from different households drive to different communities and then spend three or four hours in close quarters before driving home,” the aide said.
“I’m sorry, but we are not opening golf courses before we open schools.”
All public private elementary and secondary schools in Ontario have been closed indefinitely to in-person classes since April 19, forcing millions of students to learn online.
Another complicating factor is the Tories feel they cannot allow golf without also reopening basketball and tennis courts as well as soccer fields and baseball diamonds.
“It’s very hard to keep two metres apart playing basketball,” noted an official.
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Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, said last month that while being outside is safe, people tend to let their guard down by socializing.
“Our recommendations from my side and from the science table was that while outdoor activities are good, they should be maintained to the individual household family, not large gatherings with people close together without masking, without physical distancing,” Williams said April 22.
Dr. Dirk Huyer, Ontario’s chief coroner and another key pandemic health adviser, emphasized that closing golf courses was also about limiting mobility.
“One of the other things to remember … is how do you get to those activities? Some people might have shared vehicles and … being in close, close contact,” said Huyer.
“One of the key recommendations that flowed from … the public health measures table and the science table was to … to reduce mobility … to limit the movement of people across jurisdictions,” he said April 22.
Huyer noted that is intended “to reduce the potential for transmission, the potential for spread, the potential for infection and therefore hospitalization.”
In a statement Friday on Twitter, Golf Ontario, which represents the industry, said “golf is safe … and it is incredibly important for the mental and physical well-being of so many.”
“It is time to reopen safe outdoor activities,” the association said.
But at Tuesday’s caucus meeting, when MPPs pressed Ford’s office on benchmarks for lifting restrictions, they were told the scientists recommend keeping things shut down until new COVID-19 infections fall to 1,000 per day.
Even though the number of daily new cases has been declining steadily since the premier instituted his stay-home order on April 16, there were 3,166 infections reported Friday.
Ford has already been forced to retreat from some of those lockdown measures on April 17.
That was the day his government reversed course on closing playgrounds and enhancing police powers for random spot checks after an outcry from parents, civil liberties groups, and police services.
Ironically, Ford’s cabinet spent far more time debating golf course closures than they did on policing.
As well, Tories point out that opening golf courses would undermine their current party advertising blitz aimed at urging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to keep borders shut to prevent new COVID-19 variants from getting into the province.
“We can’t on the one hand be asking Trudeau to close borders and limit flights while on the other hand be opening up golf courses,” admitted an MPP.
Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie
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