By Dillon Carr, PhD ~
The long-term effect of Covid-19 on disc golf remains to be seen, but is expected to bring a significant increase in participation. As Americans seek opportunities for outdoor recreation that permit social distancing, interest in disc golf is likely to grow.
While increased participation in the sport is a good thing, the complex social dynamics resulting from Covid-19 may lead to restricted course access in urban areas, which may continue to entrench racial and ethnic disparities in the sport.
A case study
To illustrate this point, I’ll describe what’s happening at a course I know well. Given the sensitive nature of this topic, I’ll refer to it as “Course A.”
An 18-hole course located in a large, moderately wooded public park near a mid-sized Midwestern city, Course A provides an opportunity to play disc golf to the area’s racially diverse residents. Across the country, urban neighborhoods tend to have greater shares of racial and ethnic minorities than rural and suburban neighborhoods. Yet, two Covid-19 related issues may affect courses near cities more so than courses located in other areas.
Direct Impact of Covid-19 on Course Access
This spring, Course A experienced large crowds at the onset of the lockdowns as people sought opportunities for outdoor recreation. However, large groups were not observing social distancing restrictions, so the city banned disc golf and eventually pulled the baskets.
While the large crowds ignoring social distancing guidelines at Course A were no different than what happened at rural and suburban courses in the area, those courses were never closed to the public. This disparate treatment stems from the epidemiological reality that due to population densities, urban areas have greater potential for larger outbreaks than rural and suburban areas do. By mid-summer restrictions had been eased and the baskets returned. However, the effect of removal has been pronounced as the large crowds experienced earlier in the spring have not returned.
Indirect Impact of Covid-19 on Increased Homelessness
A second factor negatively impacting access to Course A has been a marked increase in the homeless population using the park. The impact of Covid-19 in this instance is subtler. Nearly all of the city’s homeless shelter infrastructure and social services are concentrated in a small area on the edge of the downtown core. This arrangement is ill suited for a pandemic and not surprisingly one of the largest outbreaks at the time was among the city’s homeless population accessing these resources. As a consequence, shelter capacity was greatly reduced to permit social distancing.
Reducing shelter capacity unfortunately does not also create an accompanying reduction in the homeless population. Compounding this further is that the pandemic is also likely to increase the number of individuals experiencing housing insecurity. Therefore, a sizeable portion of the homeless population became displaced from the downtown area and, not surprisingly, many of them ended up in the park that contains Course A for rational reasons. The park has ample wooded areas for shelter and privacy, public bathrooms, water, and is in proximity to busy intersections, all of which are critical resources for those experiencing homelessness.
Although the homeless population in the park does not harass disc golfers, the increased population does present an infrastructural challenge that has reduced overall use of the park. Increased visibility and larger volumes of trash combined with a reduction in park maintenance such as mowing by the city have significantly detracted from the greenspace appeal of the park. This has resulted in a corresponding decline in a feeling of safety in the park by neighborhood residents. While statistically the park remains as safe as always, the perception of safety exerts a strong influence on behavior.
Both Covid-19 related factors – the temporary closing of the course and increased homelessness – likely contributed to the marked decline in the use of Course A. This stands in stark contrast to the continued large numbers of disc golfers utilizing the rural and suburban courses in areas with higher percentages of white residents.
By itself, the declining use of Course A is not problematic, but if the same pattern holds in many regions of the country, access to disc golf has been reduced for racial minorities at a time when more people are playing than ever before.
Parked is made possible in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.
Dillon Carr is an assistant professor of anthropology at Grand Rapids Community College with a research specialty in Great Lakes archaeology. In response to an aging body and little children at home he has recently retired from volleyball and taken up disc golf as his serious hobby.