Even after Gov. Jay Inslee mandated the shutdown of non-essential businesses across the state, golfers are still playing at Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club in Federal Way.
The 18-hole course threads throughout the Twin Lakes neighborhood with hundreds of houses either overlooking or backed up on the course. Heated conversations about the continued use of the course despite the shutdown orders have occurred on social media sites such as Facebook or Next Door, where neighbors point out the golfers’ lack of social distancing or use of masks.
Complaints have been filed at the state level to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, which conducted an investigation of the club earlier this month. Complaints have also been filed to the Washington Attorney General’s Office.
Under Proclamation 20-25 of the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” directive, neither the operation nor enjoyment of a golf course qualifies as an essential business or activity, according to a March 26 email from Troy Andrew, CEO/Executive Director of Washington Golf.
Only minimum basic operations and course maintenance to prevent imminent damage to the fairways, greens and other outdoor amenities are permitted.
Minimum basic operations are explained as the minimum activities necessary to maintain the value of the business’s inventory, preserve the condition of the business’s physical plant and equipment, ensure security, process payroll and employee benefits, facilitate employees of the business being able to continue to work remotely from their residences, and related functions, according to the proclamation.
When Inslee mandated the closure of businesses March 23, the club ceased all operations and closed the pro shop, clubhouse, bar, dining room, restaurant and kitchen. TLGCC also stopped all equipment rentals and event space rentals.
“We shut everything down,” said Dave Cox, Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club board president.
The country club canceled numerous weddings and large-scale banquet events, which are huge income sources for the club, and also lost revenue from food services.
Another loss of revenue comes from the halt of green fees, which allow guests to use the course if they are not a member. Green fees usually generate about $6,000 to $8,000 per month, Cox said.
Staffing wise, the club is only operated by essential workers, which includes the general manager and grounds crew. Wait staff, cooks, pro shop employees and other positions were laid off.
There’s about 30 access points to the fairways throughout Twin Lakes, Cox said. Because anyone can walk onto the course, the club pulled the pins marking each hole, removed the sandpit rakers and covered the golfball washing stations to discourage golfers.
“We’ve basically made it so it’s not fun to play,” said Cox, adding that the club is leaving use of the course up to the stockholders, also known as “proprietary members.”
Twin Lakes has about 326 proprietary members, meaning these members pay an additional fee and are considered a stockholder in the club. Because the proprietary members are part owners of the golf club, they can use the private property whenever they please, Cox said.
“Owners have the right to protect their property and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said.
Cox hears several times a week about trespassers on Twin Lakes golf club property — non-members using the course, people walking on the greens, biking on the paths, and even some teens who drove a car through the parking lot and down a cart path to a connecting neighborhood cul-de-sac.
“It’s an ongoing battle, even when we’re open full time regularly,” Cox said of ensuring only members use the course. Every member is issued a membership card and has the authority to ask someone to show their membership card when on the property.
A golf club update newsletter sent April 18 provided to the Mirror states “DAILY REMINDER — NOT OPEN FOR BUSINESS,” and outlines a new procedure for course security where proprietary members will be emailed a specific word or phrase each day to use to ensure only members are using the course.
“Remember some members do not open or read their email — so if they don’t know the word or phrase please do not confront them in a negative manner,” the newsletter states, asking members to pass the situation to general manager David Hobson if it occurs.
“PRACTICE SOCIAL DISTANCING – NO OUTSIDE ALCOHOL ALLOWED ON PROPERTY – NO GUESTS – NO GROUP ACTIVITY,” the newsletter concludes.
Cox said the club also put out notices to golfers that if they choose to be on the course, they must adhere to social distancing, by having one person per golf cart and staying six feet apart while playing.
“We are social beings and people often come to hang out around the parking lot,” said Cox, noting that the club also stopped to-go food and drink orders, even though this is allowed under the governor’s orders. “We are doing even more than the governor’s asking.”
Due to the wide open space available on course, Cox said it should not be difficult for golfers to keep distance from one another: “Exercise is essential, being around people is the problem.”
Community members have taken to social media to express their discontent over the golfers’ actions.
“I see groups of men who obviously do not live together golfing everyday. Usually in unrelated groups of 3 or more sometimes smoking cigars. They are not wearing masks or staying 6 feet away from each other. There are lots of golfers in my backyard everyday,” one person posted. “It makes me sad because I am not seeing my friends or extended family, which I really miss during this pandemic, but they are out there having fun.”
“Not to mention the insane amount of people driving in the neighborhood in their golf carts, not paying attention and nearly running over those of us who are out for our daily 45-minute family walk (my family leaves our house once a day for a walk around the neighborhood). My 5 year old and I were nearly hit by a couple in a cart yesterday who weren’t paying attention,” another resident wrote on the Next Door app.
“There were up to 100 people out there today golfing in groups up to 5 having very close contact feet away from my home and my neighbors,” another wrote earlier this month. “High fiving and back slapping, sharing equipment, carts, etc. and hitting balls that came near and potentially on my property.”
Another community member said it’s not about the youth abusing the system, “it’s the adults who actually are most at risk for serious disease with COVID-19 deciding they are going to take advantage of a situation and play some free golf.”
Some have attempted to warn the golfers themselves, and according to one resident, “they [the golfers] told me to mind my own business and kept golfing.”
The role of local authority
On March 27, Cox emailed Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell about the difficulty securing the property.
“The problem that we are facing as a golf course community with no way to secure our property is that the general public is increasingly just walking onto the course and playing golf,” he wrote the mayor. “My question is, can our golfing members still use the course as a non-club sponsored activity and in essence monitor the trespassing without continually calling the Federal Way PD to remove these people?”
That afternoon, Ferrell replied, “Your suggestion sounds good to me and you certainly have every right to enforce your private property rights.”
The mayor also looped Federal Way Police Chief Andy Hwang into the conversation so he could increase patrols around the course as another deterrent for trespassers.
“The police department, at this time, is not actively enforcing the state’s order of shutting down businesses to mitigate the spread of coronavirus,” Hwang wrote to Cox on March 27.
Federal Way police do not have the authority to approve what Cox was proposing to do with his business, Hwang said.
“The decision whether to institute this practice rests with you and your organization,” he said. “Again, the Police Department will take steps to increase patrols.”
After additional complaints from residents, Hwang communicated the police department’s stance again on April 17. Via email, the chief reiterated that education is the common and main theme of law enforcement agencies at this time.
“Law enforcement’s primary role is to help educate people about how to comply with orders to stay at home. We are not asking our officers to detain, arrest, or ticket,” Hwang wrote.
The Federal Way Police Department is not actively enforcing the state’s order with citations or arrests for businesses being deemed non-essential, Hwang said.
When officers encounter people not complying with an order, patrol officers are able to give warnings and educate the people in the community when warranted.
The decision to institute this practice on private property rests with the Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club management. During the closure of the business, the Federal Way Police Department committed to providing increased patrols to prevent break-ins at the clubhouse and the pro shop.
“We are especially hesitant to take enforcement action against people who are physically exercising outside, provided that there are not large congregations,” Hwang wrote. “It is entirely the discretion of the police supervisors and officers whether to make contact for primarily educational purposes. If unusual circumstances arise, we will deal with it case by case.”
Based on the circumstances with Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club, Hwang said the department is reluctant to take enforcement action at this time.
State at play
After receiving more than 19 complaints about the continued operations of the Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board conducted an investigation on the business.
The complaint response team from the state Emergency Operations Center assigned a complaint from citizens that Twin Lakes golfers were being allowed to golf contrary to the governor’s proclamation, said Brian Smith, Communications Director for the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board on April 21.
The clubhouse and all restaurant/snack bars were closed, therefore the club was not in violation. However, the club management advised it was a private golf course and members had the right to use the golf course, Smith said.
Education was provided to management that the proclamation determined golf courses to be a non-essential business and should not be used, Smith said. Violations are potentially subject to a minor criminal infraction.
No further action by the board will be taken at this time, but if the EOC continues to receive complaints, they could be referred to the Attorney General’s consumer protection division, Smith said.