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Tillsonburg golf course, now closed, pledges profits to charities

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A Tillsonburg golf course that defied provincial pandemic regulations by opening for 10 days has closed, citing “overbearing” law enforcement and pledging to donate its profits to local charities.

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The Bridges at Tillsonburg opened April 24 despite additional restrictions that went into effect a week earlier in response to a surge in COVID-19 cases, including the closing of golf courses and other outdoor sports. The course’s leadership posted a statement Tuesday saying its opening was meant as a protest against the law, but they had now decided to close.

“The government has overstepped with its arbitrary and illogical closing of golf courses,” the online statement said.

“Despite strong local support and support throughout the province, the enforcement by the provincial government has been overbearing. The threats and fines have adversely affected our ability to continue playing golf safely.”

The Bridges at Tillsonburg was at or near capacity while open, with tee times almost completely booked each day the course was open over the last 10 days, its online booking system showed.

The OPP charged the course April 29 under the Reopening Ontario Act, and laid two more charges on May 1. Though the amount of the fine will be determined in court, the course faces a penalty of up to $10 million if convicted.

OPP officers also issued tickets to 19 golfers last weekend. Each ticket carries a minimum penalty of $750.

In its statement, the course leadership claimed its “opening in protest” was not about money and pledged to donate its profits from the course opening to three local charities: Domestic Abuse Services Oxford (DASO), Wellkin Child and Youth mental wellness, and the Helping Hand Food Bank in Tillsonburg.

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Kelly Baker, executive director of Wellkin, said she was aware that a representative from the golf course had contacted her organization about making a donation. Wellkin provides mental health services for children and families in Oxford County and St. Thomas.

“We’re a small non-profit doing child and youth mental health. We rely on donations and our kids are struggling today more than ever,” Baker said, noting the organization “gratefully” receives every donation. Baker said she did not yet believe a donation had been made.

Diane Harris, executive director at DASO, which serves women and children fleeing violence in the county, also confirmed being aware of a donation in the works, likely “in the thousands” of dollars, though a specific amount was not confirmed.

“We’re happy they chose to give to organizations in Oxford County that have struggled so much to make ends meet with fundraising losses and the shortage of donations through COVID,” Harris said. “It’s been an unfortunate situation all around, but I believe something good for the community is coming out of that.”

Industry professionals have condemned the course’s decision to be open in defiance of provincial regulations, but have urged the provincial government to backtrack on outdoor recreation closings.

Golf Ontario, an industry association for the province’s golf courses, said it told the government when the Bridges of Tillsonburg opened that it didn’t support the club’s decision.

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“This was . . . to ensure that our efforts to get golf reopened were not compromised,” the organization said.

The Bridges at Tillsonburg is not a member of Golf Ontario, and Mike Kelly, the organization’s executive director, said it encourages Ontario golf courses to comply with provincial laws.

The province has defended the restrictions, even after backtracking on a widely unpopular order to close playgrounds.

“The public health measures we’ve introduced are designed to reduce mobility and limit the risk of transmission in order to stabilize and protect our health-care system,” Alexandra Hilkene, a spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliott.

“As we continue to work to vaccinate Ontarians as quickly as supply allows, everyone should continue adhering to public health measures and stay at home as much as possible.”

The provincial government declared a stay-at-home order that went into effect April 8 and put in place additional restrictions, including the closing of outdoor recreation facilities and banning outdoor gatherings and public events, on April 17. The measures are expected to be in place until at least May 20.

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