Can Disc Golf Baskets Spread the Coronavirus?

By Josh Woods, PhD ~

Cover art D2Recent steps by the PDGA have put a hold on competitive, sanctioned disc golf at all levels in response to the human coronavirus outbreak.

Yet, most rounds are played during non-sanctioned events, practice rounds or casual outings. With the closing of many aspects of life over the last weeks, thousands of disc golfers are now trying to figure out how or whether to keep playing.

Release Point writers Alex Williamson and Steve Vrooman recently wrote about the precautions disc golfers should take if they decide to keep throwing. You can read them here. In the end, they offered a lukewarm endorsement of continued play: “it seems like playing a round solo or with cohabitants at a course that is not seeing high traffic levels would be both relatively safe and ethical.”

As a disc golfer, I generally share their views. And, as a disc golfer, I decided, for better or worse, to play at my local course on three of the last five days (March 15-19).

But, as a scientist, I think that continued participation, even solo rounds, is probably a mistake. One thing that Williamson and Vrooman did not cover in their article is the new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that examines the ability of the coronavirus to linger on plastic and metal surfaces. Read it here.

In a laboratory, the researchers attempted to mimic the way the virus might be deposited by an infected person onto everyday surfaces in a household, such as through coughing or touching objects. The scientists then examined how long the virus remained infectious on various surfaces. They found that it can survive up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel; it lives longer on these surfaces than on copper and cardboard. The amount of viable virus decreases sharply over the three-day period.

During my last solo round, I stared down a twenty-foot putt and began to wonder: if I’m sick, how might I infect a basket? I could cough near it. Sneeze in its general vicinity. Laugh heartily nearby. Or simply exhale as I retrieve my disc from the chains.

And how might I plant the virus on my disc? I pondered. All the above were possible and more. I could wipe sweat from my eye, lick my finger to give my putting grip a bit more stick, stroke my beard, apply Chapstick, eat a granola bar, or wipe my mouth after drinking water and then hold the disc in my hand.

Once this paranoid speculation was underway, the next part came easy: Is it possible for the virus to not only move from someone’s hand to a disc, but also from a disc to the basket, and then from the basket to another person’s disc, and finally, from that person’s disc to his or her mouth, nose or eye?

Humans are really good at imagining worst case scenarios like this one. And this kind of slippery slope thinking has resulted in a lot of bad decisions, not to mention public policy disasters. A decade of studying fear has led me to believe that more harm often comes from people’s reactions to dangers than the dangers themselves.

With a mix of both skepticism and trepidation, I reached out to an expert and asked about the possibility of a disc golf basket functioning as a delivery system for coronavirus. Dr. Sally Hodder, Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases at West Virginia University, neither confirmed my fears nor fully supported my skepticism.

In an email, Dr. Hodder wrote, “Part of the problem with the new coronavirus is that it is new and there is much we just do not know.” She noted that “the most efficient transport of virus is via respiratory aerosols from infected persons who may be asymptomatic.”

Dr. Hodder also noted the importance of the findings in the study discussed above. “Noteworthy in the summary is the statement that the virus can be detected up to 2-3 days on plastic and stainless steel.”

So, did I throw that twenty-foot putt, or walk away?

I walked. And yesterday, I tried playing an entire round without completing a hole. Once within 10 feet, I picked up my disc and counted an extra stroke. The experience was, well, not great.

For those who still have a choice, the decision to keep banging chains is up to you. As someone who has this choice myself, I think the best approach is to stay on the course, alone or in very small groups, but avoid the baskets and focus on fieldwork.

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UPDATE: On March 23, 2020, the PDGA asked disc golfers to stay away from courses: “While we know you want to be out playing right now, we need your help to set a good example for communities everywhere. That is why we are asking disc golfers to skip the course and stay home.” For now, I agree with the PDGA’s guidance.

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Parked is made possible in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.

6 thoughts on “Can Disc Golf Baskets Spread the Coronavirus?

  1. Wouldn’t the same hold true for the grass upon which your disc lands, slides, rolls and bounces on its journey towards the basket? What are the odds of landing on an “infected” patch? Certainly much lower than those from landing in the basket but is it still enough to be a valid concern?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. At 1:28 pm (EST) on 3/20, we certainly have more concerns than we have evidence-based research on this topic. The situation seems to be changing quickly. And many of these concerns may become irrelevant as more and more parks are shut down and so forth. But to answer your question, I have no idea. When it comes to the special case of disc golf, I don’t think strong answers are available. I think that most experts in this area will suggest caution, but will not make definitive claims about the risk of transmission via plastic, metal baskets or grass in the unique case of disc golf, even if some have suggested to me and others that the risk is likely very small.

    There is, of course, consensus on the prohibition of large groups. In fact, only moments ago, the PDGA extended its suspension of event sanctioning through April 30, 2020.

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  3. My husband and I carry a rag in a ziplock of isopropyl alcohol and wash our putters after any basket not in direct sunlight, and every few holes even in direct sunlight.

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  4. Sunlight significantly shortens the life of viruses, as does enough heat. Add into the probability calculation for transmission from a basket that for the most part the virus would have to be on a disc, then pass from the disc to the basket or chains, then to another disc–all hard surfaces.

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