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Miniature golf: a lesson in how state-by-state approach to reopenings can miss their target | COMMENTARY

Old Pro Golf locations in Ocean City, like this one photographed in 2018, have remained closed under Maryland's coronavirus restrictions while their competitors in Delaware have been allowed to reopen with limits.
Old Pro Golf locations in Ocean City, like this one photographed in 2018, have remained closed under Maryland's coronavirus restrictions while their competitors in Delaware have been allowed to reopen with limits. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun photo)

Maryland beachgoers who enjoy a round or two of miniature golf have confronted a peculiar situation of late. Under Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive orders guiding the reopening of businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, outdoor amusement facilities, like miniature golf operations, have not yet been given the green light to accept customers. Yet just across the line in Delaware, they have. Making the situation even more odd, some vendors operate facilities in both states, so whether a course is open in Ocean City or perhaps nearby as Fenwick Island is, shall we say, a blurred line. At Nick’s Mini Golf, for example, an attendant said Friday that he expected courses in both states to be open over the weekend, a decision he said was “hard to explain.”

This is frustrating to entrepreneurs like Scott Schoellkopf of Old Pro Golf, which as of Friday listed all six of its golf courses in Ocean City as temporarily closed. And on a recent tour with local elected officials including Rep. Andy Harris, he expressed frustration with the Maryland-Delaware reopening divide and acknowledged that some of his competitors were breaking the rules. "Some have gone rogue,” Mr. Schoellkopf told a reporter with the Maryland Coast Dispatch. “I’m trying to do the right thing.” That includes making changes in procedures like having fewer people on the course, sanitizing clubs, as well as insisting on masks and social distancing.

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Should miniature golf attractions be open now? Surely, an argument can be made either way. As an outdoor activity, it’s less likely to result in coronavirus transmission than indoor attractions, but it involves a lot of people touching a lot of common surfaces and, unlike actual golf which is now open in Maryland, is normally done in fairly close proximity. Points of contention in Maryland’s virus-related restrictions are nothing new (how indoor shooting ranges were designated as “critical” and avoided any shutdown whatsoever remains a travesty). What’s troubling here is how competitors miles apart, perhaps even blocks in the case of some businesses, have been given an unfair advantage by the exigencies of the state-by-state response to pandemic restrictions.

Miniature golf is not alone. Ocean City has been struggling in recent weeks to follow the governor’s orders without further compromising a tourism season that has already proven disappointing and potentially disastrous for mom-and-pop business owners. Last month, the Ocean City Council had a contentious debate about whether the presence of benches on the boardwalk encouraged people to violate social distancing rules. They considered removing the benches altogether after using “caution” tape to keep some of them from being used but that was deemed unattractive. The final vote? To remove the tape and not the benches, leaving it to visitors to police their own behavior.

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That kind of laissez-faire approach to public health has built up a lot of momentum in Maryland’s beach resort where at the beginning of the pandemic, officials wanted to prevent property owners from even stepping foot in town, fearful as they were of overwhelming local health care resources. Today, there’s something akin to a collective shrug when media reports show weekend crowds in close proximity on the boardwalk. The real concern is that Governor Hogan hasn’t allowed indoor restaurant seating fast enough. “Just yesterday, our next-door neighbor, Fenwick Island, opened (with capacity limits) indoor dining, mini-golf, Go-Karts, casinos, gyms, wedding venues and outdoor gatherings for up to 250 people,” Susan Jones of the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association recently wrote in a letter to Maryland’s governor. “It is very difficult to watch revenue cross the street.”

And that, unfortunately, demonstrates the ultimate folly of the state-by-state, governor-by-governor approach to reopening. The pressure to relax limits and perhaps compromise public health will always be high when a neighboring state takes that step first. And even Governor Hogan’s resolve won’t make much difference if his restrictions aren’t enforced. Ocean City versus the Fenwick Island-to-Rehoboth Beach corridor is perhaps the extreme example, but how much more rational would this process be if decisions were made at the national or at least regional level? And, most worrisome of all, if Delaware’s choices have a negative impact on the pandemic, Maryland still pays the price anyway when all those Delaware beach visitors go home — to Baltimore, to the D.C. suburbs, to elsewhere across the state. At least in mini-golf, bad shots sometimes are allowed a do-over. Not so in public health where viruses don’t respect state lines.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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