Aquila Golf lawyer says operator of The Babe, city “on same page” following restraining order

Published 12:18 am Wednesday, April 15, 2020

It took a temporary restraining order from 172nd District Court Judge Mitch Templeton for the city of Port Arthur to allow Babe Zaharias Municipal Golf Course to resume operations amid local, county and state “Stay at Home, Work Safe” executive orders.

Beaumont lawyer Layne Walker successfully filed an application for the restraining order Monday. Port Arthur Mayor Thurman Bartie then issued a third amended policy paving the way for The Babe to reopen Tuesday morning under strict guidelines aimed at beating the coronavirus pandemic.

Aquila Golf CEO George Brown deferred comment to Walker, who argued golfers and other citizens have the right to exercise and enjoy physical activity with proper protocols. Walker expressed thanks to Bartie and the city for allowing the course to reopen.

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“Everybody is on the same page,” Walker said. “We want to keep everybody as safe as we can and stop the spread of coronavirus.”

Bartie acknowledged he issued his amended order this week based on legal advice from the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

In a letter dated April 11 to State Rep. James B. Frank, R-Wichita Falls, who serves as chairman of the Committee on Human Services, Deputy Attorney General Ryan M. Vassar wrote some elements of golf course businesses may provide “essential services” under Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order, GA-14, and guidance from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Such services include restaurants offering take-out or delivery options, landscaping and sanitation.

Golf course personnel such as starters, marshals and pro-shop staff who do not provide essential services must follow the general rule of Abbott’s order, which is to “minimize social gatherings and minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household,” Vassar wrote.

Bartie maintains he still has the option of keeping The Babe closed.

“The AG’s [advice] is not like an order,” Bartie said, adding Vassar’s explanation in closing that the letter is not an official opinion or an exhaustive memorandum of law. “With that, [the course is] going to abide by the rules.”

Among the stipulations in Bartie’s amendment:

  • Golfers must follow guidelines and social distancing protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention;
  • golfers must use separate golf carts for each golfer;
  • golf carts must be sanitized before and after each use;
  • no more than three people may occupy the clubhouse and other officers at any time;
  • those playing may not touch the flagstick; and
  • foam cups will be utilized to keep golf balls from falling into each hole.

Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick issued an addendum to his “Stay at Home, Work Safe” order on April 7 requiring all golf facilities to shut down immediately. Branick lifted that policy less than 24 hours later, at which time Bartie issued an order to close golf facilities.

The Babe is the only active golf course in Port Arthur.

Bartie and Branick acted on a verbal request from Abbott to close all golf facilities in their jurisdictions. Abbott referred to CISA guidance that did not list golf as an essential industry.

“The Governor’s office has no authority to limit people’s physical activity,” Walker said. “The Babe benefits the taxpayers of Port Arthur. While [Bartie is] trying to be proactive and do the right thing, I’m not sure the mayor’s order was in compliance with state law. The taxpayers of the city of Port Arthur would lose money every day the course is not open.”

Walker noted the taxpayers of Port Arthur would receive 5 percent “over and above” The Babe’s total revenue once that revenue reached $500,000. For example, if the course generated $600,000 in a year, the city would receive $5,000, which is 5 percent of the $100,000 above the minimum.

The Babe lost more than $20,000 from April 8-13, Walker said.

“We can recoup the money,” Bartie said. “I didn’t [shut down the course] based on finances. I did it to save people’s lives. … It boils down to what’s the prudent thing to do.”

The temporary restraining order is in effect for 14 days and can be extended by Templeton just once for 14 more days.

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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