Waiting Game: Ontario pickleball players soured by stay-at-home order extension

A foot of snow and minus-10 degree temperatures didn't faze 76-year-old John Cormier and his pals from hitting the outdoor pickleball courts earlier this year.

Craving some social interaction along with their racket sport fix, his hardy crew in Prince Edward County, Ont., took on the winter weather with gusto by shovelling, salting and drying the courts as needed to get matches in.

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"Of course you can't move as well as you (normally) would but it worked out really well," Cormier said. "We played all year until they came out with the hammer where we couldn't get together at all anymore."

That hammer came courtesy of the province's stay-at-home order, which was recently extended until at least June 2. It prohibits many outdoor sporting activities in Ontario, including pickleball, golf and tennis.

With limited — if any — indoor options available in recent months, outdoor sport has provided a welcome respite for many people looking to stay active during the pandemic.

The provincial decision to shut down many activities has drawn the ire of sporting communities, with supporters noting that social distancing is naturally in place with a very low risk of COVID-19 exposure.

"Golf is Safe. The medical experts are clearly aligned to this," Golf Ontario posted Friday on Twitter. "The risk of outdoor transmission is low and the importance of safe outdoor activities like golf is clear. #LetUsPlay #GolfIsSafe."

The province has said the rules barring many outdoor recreational activities are intended to limit mobility between regions.

Ontario's top doctor has said he'd like to see "well below 1,000" daily cases before the stay-at-home order is lifted. The province reported 2,362 new COVID-19 cases on Friday.

Pro golfer Taylor Pendrith of Richmond Hill, Ont., said the province's golf situation has been a hot topic among his playing partners on the U.S.-based Korn Ferry Tour.

"Nobody can believe that golf is not open," Pendrith said from Knoxville, Tenn. "But I just think it's a shame. The golf courses managed very well last summer. They followed all the public health guidelines.

"It's just unfortunate that people can't participate in outdoor activity that benefits physical health and mental health for all ages."

Tennis and pickleball, meanwhile, enjoyed popularity upticks over the last year, said Canadian Pickleball Series founder Karl Hale, also the longtime tennis tournament director for the National Bank Open.

Busy courts were a frequent sight last summer throughout the province, making locked entry gates all the more difficult for players to see now that the warmer weather has arrived this spring.

"We've really fought as a sport to open it up," Hale said. "We had over 100,000 people sign a petition to open tennis up. We had the leaders of our national governing body and provincial governing body go and meet with government officials to try to open it up.

"So we've been doing everything in our power to support our sport and the people that love our sport. All I can tell everybody is we've been doing our best to help and just be patient. The weather is nice so go outside and get walks for now and hopefully June 2nd, tennis and pickleball will be open for good."

Cormier, a longtime squash player, transitioned to pickleball a few years ago. The sport is played on a badminton-sized court and is popular with the senior crowd as it uses lower nets and a wiffle-style ball.

"It's heartbreaking for people who found a new way of life with (this) exercise," Cormier said. "Now we just have to wait a little bit longer. I don't know what else to tell you but it's very disappointing, just like (it is for) golfers or tennis players."

Last winter, the outdoor courts in Cormier's area — about a two-hour drive east of Toronto — were limited to 10-12 people, he said, before rules were changed to a five-person limit with masks on.

Now everything remains on hold, including casual matches, recreational leagues and tournaments.

"It gets people to go out," he said. "It's a social thing also ... it's just a great way for seniors to get exercise. You bend down, you pick up the ball, have a little bit of a rally."

Hale said it has been an extremely "difficult and confusing time" on the outdoor sports front with no right answers on the COVID-19 situation.

"We've been through a very up and down year with these lockdowns and the new variants and the waves," he said from Toronto. "The weather is getting better and we know we're going to be opening soon.

"So in this instance, you have to throw faith in the fact that a little bit longer and we'll be out of this for good hopefully."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2021.

Follow @GregoryStrongCP on Twitter.

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