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We All Need to be Leaders Now: COVID Perspectives from a family-owned Indoor Golf Business in Toronto

a photo of the inside of swing golf lounge

It’s the 11th week of lockdown for our indoor golf business in Toronto after being open for only six weeks of winter 2020/21 season in October and November. I’ve dropped into the business to check everything is OK here. With my laptop in my backpack, it seemed like the right time to sit down and pen some thoughts on the past ten months since COVID began. It’s been a time of sadness, frustration and also general reflection upon the realities of our small business endeavour – on that I’ll elaborate later. It’s also been a time to appreciate what we have as a family unit, and not just what we’re missing during these strange times.

A Lifetime Golfing Passion: Reflecting in Lockdown Silence

So here I am, sitting alone at the bar. The venue is empty, and besides the hum of the air-conditioning system, there’s not a sound – or at least there wasn’t until a few minutes ago. As we normally would do each morning, I decided to start up each of the golf bays. In turn for each bay, I activated the simulator radars and switched on the monitors and overhead projectors. On each of the big screens, except in Bay 3 immediately behind me, I selected one of my favourite course home pages, from the UK, Canada, the U.S., Spain and Japan. Our virtual golf course library and playing features has extended beyond my expectations since our business began in 2018, so it took me a few minutes to choose. With razor sharp screen graphics radiating from each bay, the lifelessness of the empty building was slightly less apparent, but the silence in a place normally buzzing with golfers playing and chatting was still almost deafening. I wouldn’t be able to sit typing for very long with that dispiriting distraction. To break that silence I decided to open Bay 3’s PC internet browser, turn up the speaker volume, and find the YouTube page of my original golfing inspiration. If you haven’t ever seen The Masters YouTube channel, I recommend it highly. With seemingly endless footage of The Masters through the decades, it’s an absolute treasure trove of golfing history and memories. I decided to watch the 1985 tournament, the second one I ever watched. Bernhard Langer’s victory that year was a European inspiration, and especially to me as a fourteen-year-old Brit who had only recently discovered a passion for golf. It wasn’t long after this that my golfing idol became Seve Ballesteros, the charismatic Spanish golfing matador and eternal icon of European golf. But enough of this golfing reminiscence; I’m supposed to be sitting here writing about our COVID pandemic experiences and thoughts! As relatively new entrepreneurs in a small family business being crushed by the crisis, I feel we are entitled to a view. The opinions expressed may not be to everyone’s liking, but general consensus on anything has been a little off-trend for a while anyway!

Firstly, some reassurance. We’re absolutely determined to ensure survival of our business. It’s our family livelihood and we love to see our customers playing golf, eating, drinking and having fun. We’ll reopen when conditions and public health rules permit. So, all the gift cards and player cards that our customers hold will still be valid. Please don’t lose them!

Pandemic: The Early Days

In the first weeks of March when the coronavirus risk became apparent, we adjusted accordingly. All of our customers respected social distancing and accepted the inconvenience of us wiping and sanitizing between each booking. At that point, there was no serious discussion about mandatory mask wearing. We were very grateful for the understanding, cooperation and respect for our wonderful team doing their best to keep our customers safe. However, we made the unilateral decision to suspend business on March 15th, just two days ahead of the first provincial lockdown on March 17th. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time, and we’re glad we took that decision – we don’t believe that commercial considerations necessarily take precedence in all situations. We then lost approximately six weeks of prime winter season revenues up until the end of April with just about everyone seemingly hunkered down and doing their best to prevent virus transmission. That initial phase of COVID was a strange time for all of us. Wiping down grocery home deliveries on the doorstep will be an enduring memory of the paranoia and uncertainty of the facts. We’re glad that didn’t become a permanent feature of everyday life!

Springtime finally arrived and we began to look forward to the relative safety of outdoor activity. Golf was delayed as the industry developed COVID safe operating protocols. While that took shape, I rejuvenated a long neglected, and only partially developed, interest in cycling. The road bike purchased for the 2011 Ride to Conquer Cancer had sat mothballed until some light riding in 2019. Like the world and their many new dogs, I made the decision to make cycling a regular activity with three to four decent rides each week. Finally, in mid-May, golf courses were able to open. Like most golfers and the industry that serves them, we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. With the assistance of excellent club organisation, diligent adherence to social distancing and the Pin Caddy no-touch flag gadget, we could get out there and play.

Summer: A Taste of Normal

Compared to the isolation of spring, the summer months unfolded with a semblance of normality, even if social distancing and mask wearing in indoor environments was required. Similar to cycling, golf experienced a huge demand surge, with tee time slots being taken almost immediately as they became available. Where daily new COVID cases reported were dipping into later June and then remaining low into early September, we became very hopeful for a successful 2020/21 indoor golf winter season. In public at least, it seemed that Ontarians were doing the right thing to keep the risk of virus spread to an absolute minimum. In August we reconnected with our staff and invited them all to a socially distanced BBQ in our backyard. We were delighted to hear that they all wanted to return for the new season, two of them even doing so after having moved some distance away. We began to make plans for reopening; a little later than normal as we expected the drift to indoor activity being slightly delayed because of COVID. Our kids went back to school and we spent September preparing our indoor golf venue for business resumption, much of it standing upon a ten-foot ladder to refit all of our golf bay screens and curtains. As each day passed, listening to the news in the background, it became increasingly clear that our hopes for a great season might need to be reassessed; by mid-September COVID cases were beginning to rise again, presaging an increase in COVID fatalities as the month progressed. In mid- September, the realization of that statistical inevitability coincided with our discussion with Toronto Public Health (TPH) about COVID protocols for reopening.

Safety First: Preparing to Head Indoors

Establishing a safe COVID operating environment for the winter season ahead had been our main business preoccupation for a while. We’d purchased HEPA air filtration systems for each golf bay and bought ample supplies of sanitizer, wipes, masks, and signage. However, while buying stuff was absolutely necessary, we understood that strict adherence to well-thought-out rules would be equally fundamental. We considered that limiting the number of customers simultaneously visiting our business would be key to ensuring social distancing. Where our fire capacity of 72 people exceeds our typical needs, the prevailing provincial stage 3 limitation of 50 people indoors would be relatively inconsequential to us. However, to ensure safety for our customers and our staff we decided to operate with a maximum capacity of only 18 players, three in each of the six bays. Also, the key to social distancing was removing all of the main bar chairs and tables to reinforce that customers should stay within the red-taped area we had designated for each individual golf bay. Just as in March, and now with even more criteria to be observed, we were absolutely confident we’d achieve a safe operating environment.

Our first engagement with TPH in September didn’t go well. Our business model, focusing both on the indoor golf and accompanying food and beverage experience, didn’t fit neatly into their recently developed COVID rule framework. Even with the expansive distancing we have between our golf bays compared to a typical restaurant, they initially said we had to choose if we wanted to be an indoor golf venue or a restaurant. We disagreed with that interpretation of the rules and asked them to reconsider. They then said we could serve food and drink in the venue, but away from the golf bay area. We countered once again. The protocols we had formulated ensured that customers would remain in their golf bays and not circulate round the venue. The TPH proposal entailed that people would be moving around between golf and drinking, increasing the risk of COVID transmission. We elevated the issue through a few levels of TPH management, and in early October they finally agreed with our proposal. We expressed our gratitude for their effort and understanding – maybe things wouldn’t be too bad after all when we finally reopened on October 8th! We then proceeded to operate under our #GolfCovidAware rules for two days until the rules changed again.

Open & Almost Normal Business for Two Whole Days!

On October 9th, our second day open, Toronto Public Health called us to confirm what we had seen on the news that day. Effective midnight, far more restrictive rules would take effect in Toronto, Peel and Ottawa. This was labelled ‘Modified Stage 2’. Our 5,000 square feet of customer space would now be limited to 10 people and we would not be permitted to serve any food or drink. With two staff working, that also entailed reducing capacity to eight customers. Measured in fire capacity terms, we’d be operating at 14% of maximum load, with strict distancing and permanent mask wearing. In order to respect that limit of eight customers we needed to shut down two of our six golf bays, operating the remaining four with a maximum of two players at any one time. The social distancing was now beyond extreme at 5 metres, 5 metres and 3 metres between the paired or solo players in each of those four bays.

We were then faced with the difficult decision whether to continue with our food and drink offering on a take-out basis. We’re proud of the excellent menu that our fabulous Chef serves each day. We feel it’s as good, or even better than many of the restaurant offerings nearby on the Queensway. With only eight potential customers visiting every couple of hours and no meaningful presence as a food focused business online, it was fairly clear it would be economically unviable. Chef was understanding of the circumstances and had already prepared contingent plans.

For the next six weeks we operated diligently under our in-house rules. Our customers, some new and others returning, were fantastically cooperative. On a handful of occasions we did have to remind people that masks need to be worn covering both mouth and nose, but such occurrences were reassuringly few. The indoor golf experience went on and we were delighted for it. Toronto Public Health would have been welcome to drop by at any time. They would not have been disappointed.

‘Lockdown’: Small Business Shutdown & Winter 2021/22 Concerns Ahead:

October days passed with a trickle of business that grew slowly as November arrived and golf courses began to close for winter. By the third week of November business activity had increased, but so had the flow of bad COVID news. On Friday November 20th the City of Toronto announced that we would be entering yet another colour coded phase of restrictions on November 23rd; this time coloured ‘Grey’, having previously been Red. This meant full lockdown for our business, lasting at least 28 days. We have been closed due to lockdown rules ever since. It was at that point that I began to reassess my feelings about Ontario’s response to the COVID crisis, both as a Canadian citizen and as a small business owner. Within days of that lockdown imposition, being screamed at by a manager at the CRA, who wouldn’t disclose their name, didn’t help lift my spirits. But that’s another story. Eleven weeks on from then, the outlook for the remainder of our prime winter season until May looks uncertain at best. Our main hope is that we can safely reopen in October for a full winter season in October 2021. If that can’t happen it would become a family economic disaster. It’s our absolute dread that keeps us awake at night. If that transpired, I doubt things would be any better for nearly all small business in the hospitality sector, even if they are able to safely capture some summer revenues outdoors.

Team Resilience:

Before proceeding, I’d like to further acknowledge our staff team. They’ve handled the situation with notable resilience, tenacity and mature understanding. Amidst incredibly challenging circumstances, all of them have been resourceful in finding other work beyond the hospitality sector. Two of them are administrators at COVID testing centres; for now, essential workers in our community until hopefully, they once again become essential and active members of our team. We can’t wait to have them all back. 

Canada’s COVID Handling: A Small Business Opinion:

If you’ve read this far, I’m both pleasantly surprised and grateful. Now it’s time for me to offer apologies to anyone I may offend with some very honest opinions about the handling of the COVID crisis. Before I embark on that, I must firstly say thank you to all the people who’ve done the right thing to prevent the disease spreading; also to the essential and frontline workers who’ve relentlessly kept the key services operating and cared for those whose health has been severely impacted. We know we’re lucky to remain healthy and have a family household able to stay safely at home and handle the stresses fairly well.

COVID Containment: Whose Responsibility?

So why is this whole thing such a mess, both in general and for the small business economy that is suffering so badly? There’s many pieces to the puzzle. However, reading or watching the news, I believe someone awaking after ten months could be forgiven for believing that government is responsible for COVID’s transmission and its consequences. Just about everything we see and read points to the system’s many challenges and shortcomings, but little media admonishment is directed to the sufficiently prevalent public complacency that has, in reality, caused most of the virus spread. This is a fundamental failure when we all know the basic do’s and don’ts, but such truth doesn’t sell newspapers, appeal to TV advertisers or generate social media ‘likes’. So, the government is left carrying the bag of public responsibility. But the government doesn’t spread COVID. We do.

Government Pandemic Handling Failures:

So, what of the government’s COVID handling record? In the early days of the crisis, the message from the Federal and Provincial government was seemingly reassuring, cohesive and worthy of our trust, especially where the public appeared to be cooperative and the detailed science about the pandemic remained understandably elusive. However, by mid-summer it became fairly clear that previous and present Canadian and Ontario governments of all complexions had failed in pandemic preparation. Ultimately, as our health system and small business economy is currently battling to survive COVID’s second wave, the emergence of a third wave in fall 2021 is a horrifyingly realistic prospect for at least one main reason, discussed below. It’s therefore unsurprising that our Prime Minister may be seeking another term in office with an early spring 2021 election before the prospect of a disastrous third wave is broadly comprehended.

Failure to Prepare: No Domestic VACCINE Production!

Firstly, preparedness. Other than the remote theoretical military threat to Canadian sovereign territory, a pandemic has always presented our greatest threat of public catastrophe. It’s never been a secret. While we were clearly unprepared in terms of PPE, the greatest error is not having a domestic mass vaccine biomanufacture capabiity. Arguably this represents a strategic failure across multiple governments. While Canada may have contracts for the largest number of COVID vaccines per capita in the world, the scale of those contracts won’t be of much help if the vaccines aren’t fully administered before we head indoors in October 2021. We’ve already seen how a summer lull in infection rates can lead to a false sense of pandemic security and a sharp transmission increase in fall. Perhaps not by coincidence, this is also the time when kids of all ages return to school, colleges and universities. With more highly infectious COVID variants emerging and spreading uncontrollably in many global regions, the risk of Canada experiencing major vaccine delays naturally emerges as countries compete for scarce availability. Those delays and the associated political blame and deflection has already begun.

Policy Mistakes and Lack of Conviction:

Given the risk to timely vaccine availability before fall 2021, our second concern regarding apparent government failure is the seemingly weak and inconsistent messaging and policy that has emerged from the government in recent months. This worry has multiple strands. Arguably overall, the government’s stance now seems to be as much focused upon political bullet-dodging as it is on the mitigation of risks to health and the economy. Evidently, while we have endured loosely enforced ‘lockdown’ (or many would say ‘mockdown’) policies and heard ‘Stay at Home’ messages, these decrees have primarily been effective in causing economic damage, particularly to small business, but have had little impact upon changing behaviour to sufficiently prevent further COVID spread. Such a half-baked approach has escalated the crisis both in-depth, duration, and cost. 

It is our view that, since the start of the crisis, government has been continuously fearful of the broad political consequences to a proper hard lockdown that would have substantially contained the virus. That opportunity to properly lockdown and contain the virus has now almost certainly passed. We believe the government’s primary fear has been to a prospectively resentful section of the voting public that didn’t want its freedoms forcefully limited in the shorter term. The government has also been fearful of a backlash from multi-national company CEOs who have wanted the business economy operating as normally as possible without disruption. It’s been short sighted and dangerous. Both of these groups exercise influence of huge electoral consequence. Conversely, while Canada’s economy is disproportionately comprised of small businesses compared to other developed economies, those disparate (and increasingly desperate) small business voices appear to have been of little interest to our political masters, despite the ‘support small business’ platitudes. This reality of this disdain is starkly apparent in Ontario’s inconsistent retail opening policies. Small retailers selling non-essential goods have only been allowed curbside pick-up with zero customers permitted indoors. In contrast, ‘Big Box’ retailers have been hosting customers indoors for non-essential browsing and purchases as long as they have essential items such as groceries for sale. Of course, there’s the misleading caveat that the big box stores are only allowed to operate at limited capacity (now 50%), but that’s a red herring headline receiving little journalistic enquiry. 50% of building code capacity is still a huge number of people indoors – maximum building code capacity numbers are very large. I know people who have been to such stores in recent weeks and told me that check-out there was the most terrifying COVID experience they’ve had yet, almost elbow-to-elbow, and with enough sloppy or absent mask wearing to be very concerned. But somehow the Ontario government calculates that one masked customer in a small store with only a couple of employees, represents a higher transmission risk warranting lockdown closure. I’d love to hear the science behind that. I know I’d feel much safer as a solo customer in a small shop. Curiously, the media hasn’t seemed too bothered to deeply probe this inconsistency. These big foreign owned multinational stores have huge advertising budgets – no media outlet would want to jeopardise those revenues.

An alternative comparison for us is to compare our November COVID operating risk with that of the big box stores in recent months. This is not to say we have a firm belief that we should be allowed to operate almost normally right now, but it is a relevant comparison. When we were locked down in November, we were operating at 14% capacity with static masked customers permanently distanced at 5m, 5m & 3m. The reality is that government fears big business and has little more than contempt for small business to the extent they’re prepared to see it wiped out as economic collateral damage – just so they can say they did ‘something’, without upsetting anyone of major electoral significance.

Hospital Surge Capacity: Inadequate Development

The third major governmental mistake was a failure to plan for large scale hospital ICU surge capacity development early on in March. Extreme pressure beyond the existing capacity of the medical infrastructure was undeniably foreseeable. With public commitment to containment unknown, and with the reliability of overseas manufactured vaccine procurement uncertain, immediate planning and medical staff training should have begun. Construction of facilities should have commenced as soon as the September spike became apparent. But little happened, and here we are now living the sad consequences of incompetent procrastination play out. There’s really no excuses. If such surge capacity did exist now, it’s arguable that the government might not have felt the political need for a largely symbolic small business lockdown, absent of a proper lockdown with meaningful containment impact.

Additional Government Disappointments:

There’s so many other government disappointments. The lack of rapid testing availability has been another competence failure. Ministerial beach holidays was an overt display of absent integrity. Eight months of open skies permitting potentially infected travellers to land at Canadian airports and avoid any meaningful quarantine restrictions was a joke. No doubt that was influenced by powerful lobby interests. I wrote to my MP in August on this subject specifically, proposing that mandatory quarantine until cleared by testing in empty airport hotels at government expense was a win-win. The response? An automated email within seconds that my MP was too busy to bother engaging with me.

Ultimately: We All Have an Individual Responsibility and Duty

Where does this leave us? The stakes are so incredibly high. The health and economic risks extend well beyond the misfortune of overwhelming small business demise in the winter 2021/22 timeframe. It is my view that we cannot continue to rely on government to provide solutions, or even rely upon its honesty about the potential realities. Almost certainly the excuses are already being prepared. We can but hope that our political masters elevate their game significantly and become the leaders we desperately need. In the meantime, we all have an individual responsibility and duty to do the right thing for our citizen’s health and Canada’s economy. So please keep the masks on and remain socially distanced until we overcome the greatest challenge in three generations.  A wartime effort against the virus is required. We must all be leaders now.

Thanks for reading. Please support small business.

Stay healthy & keep doing the right thing.

Keith Jolly

Vice-President

Swing Golf Lounge

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