By Rebecca Black, PA
Golfers across Northern Ireland had a “spring in their step” on Thursday as the region took its next gradual steps out of lockdown.
Following the return of the first children to school last month, the latest relaxation of the restrictions means up to six people from no more than two households are permitted to meet outdoors in a private garden.
Ten people, from no more than two households, are able to participate in outdoor sporting activities while click-and-collect purchases are now allowed from garden centres and plant nurseries.
Morning golfers 🏌️♀️🏌️♂️ and a very warm and sunny welcome back to @ShandonParkGC ⛳️!
Hope all golfers everywhere enjoy today!#LoveGolf #LoveSPGC@DiarmuidMaguir1 @Golfer2017 @loveulstergolf @Ulstergolfdaily @MikeHoeyNI @NIGolfChannel @MHHospitality @cloweir @LFCGEOFFERS https://t.co/rPk5CZ4MlL
— Shandon Park GC (@ShandonParkGC) April 1, 2021
Golf courses reopened for the first time since December 26, however clubhouses remained closed as part of the Stormont Executive’s gradual emergence from lockdown.
At Shandon Park Golf Club in east Belfast, the first golfers arrived at 6.30am to snap up their pre-booked 7am slot to tee off.
The club’s general manager Marianne Hood said the bright, sunny start to the day added to the good feeling as their golfers returned.
“Everyone has got a spring in their step, it helps that the weather is so good and the course has been looked after so well during closure,” she said.
“We officially teed off at 7am but the first were here at 6.30am just to make sure they didn’t miss one minute.
“It’s great to see players back on the course. For physical health and emotional health and wellbeing it is so important.”
The club has 1,000 members, including 800 who play as well as social members.
Players went out in pairs to play just nine holes instead of the full 18 so that as many members as possible could book a round.
We're only playing nine holes instead of the normal 18, and that's to facilitate as many members as possible getting out
“Normally a round of golf has got four people, which is called a four ball, but because of the restrictions they are only playing two balls,” she said.
“We’re only playing nine holes instead of the normal 18, and that’s to facilitate as many members as possible getting out.
“The clubhouse is closed too. It is different, on a normal day we would have a lot more golfers but the restrictions allow just two people at a time.”
At Hillmount Garden Centre, owner Robin Mercer was handling 200 click and collect orders and said he had to bring in extra staff to cope with the demand.
“It’s OK for the supermarkets, they are geared up for click and collect, whereas our website is more general, for deliveries and letting people see what we have, so we have had to react very quickly. It’s been a learning curve for us this morning,” he said.
“It’s better than nothing but it’s not ideal. It’s annoying when you see garden centres in England, Scotland and Wales open.
“I can’t understand it. Government want people to stay at home to keep them off the road, I think if they just let them come to garden centres, they’ll buy enough stuff to keep them going all weekend in the house.
“But we’re in a better position than a lot of shops so I can’t really complain.”
As well as dealing with coronavirus restrictions, Mr Mercer is contending with delivery difficulties due to Brexit and most recently the shipping chaos in the Suez Canal after the Ever Given container ship blocked the key route.
“Some of our stuff is either on that ship or the ships behind, welly boots, gloves and garden furniture. We have heard that’ll be held up for another week or so,” he said.
“In terms of Brexit we haven’t had a plant in from England at all this year, they relaxed the rules about the soil but none of the carriers are prepared to do it any more, so we’ve lost that whole opportunity.”
There will be further relaxation of the coronavirus restrictions on April 12th with the Stay At Home message set to change to Stay Local.
The final cohort of school pupils, secondary years eight to 11, will go back to classes, while up to 10 people from no more than two households can meet outdoors in a private garden and click and collect will resume at all non-essential retail outlets.
Meanwhile, outdoor sports training will resume for sports clubs affiliated with recognised governing bodies with no more than 15 participants in one training group. Indoor club facilities, apart from toilets, are to remain closed.
The April 12th measures are subject to final ratification by the Executive in the week before they come into effect, likely on April 8th.
Northern Ireland has been living under restrictive lockdown measures since a spike of coronavirus cases in December.
In the Republic, the Government has indicated a number of dates for the further easing of restrictions.
From April 12th, the current five-kilometre exercise limit will be extended to allow people to travel within their own county or within a 20km radius of their home even if that crosses a county boundary.
From April 19th, restrictions on sports will ease to allow GAA senior county training to return, but will not include under 20 or minor competitions.
The easing of further restrictions from April 26th is subject to the “prevailing public health situation”. Outdoor sports facilities might reopen at that point, such as pitches, golf courses and tennis courts. Activities would take place between a maximum of two households and there would not be any return to team sports or training activities.