Curtain up: Amenities returning to normal

Tom Elinskas, right, of the Village of Sunset Pointe, watches his shot on the first hole of the Hibiscus course during a round of golf with Mary and Jack Collins at Cane Garden Country Club.

You couldn’t exactly call it a grand reopening. After all, The Villages’ recreation centers and entertainment venues have operated at limited capacity for months. Golf never stopped at all, though adjustments had to be made at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of today, though, the curtain is up. All the way up. “We’re just calling it, ‘We’re back!’” said John Rohan, The Villages’ director of recreation. For the first time in 14-and-a-half months, all of The Villages’ amenities today resume operating at pre-virus levels.

Facilities return to their March 2020 capacities and participation levels, with one small tweak ­­— recreation centers will close at 9 p.m.

Otherwise, well, as you were. And if you arrived in The Villages in these past 14 months, you’ll finally get a chance to taste the lifestyle in full bloom.

“It’s definitely time,” said David Williams, golf operations administrator for The Villages Golf & Tennis. “We’re very thankful that this community has been conscientious enough to get us to this point.”

Rohan described the full reopening as “really a tribute to everyone’s willingness to hold steady until we got everything lined up.”

“We feel comfortable knowing what we know now,” he said. “So now it’s time for our residents to get back to why they moved here — enjoying the lifestyle and amenities and getting the most out of their lives.”

Catch a show

At Old Mill Playhouse, signs denoting COVID-19 guidelines came down May 18.

The theater quietly lifted all virus protocols, including requested masks and social distancing and, most notably, limited capacity in both the lobby and movie auditoriums.

“We have been wide open seating-wise for weeks at Lazy Mac’s,” said Spencer Novak, The Villages’ executive director of hospitality. “All shows sell out as (they are) new for the residents.”

Novak expects the same will happen with the additional offerings starting this week, including Improv Nights, Trivia Nights and Blazing Pianos shows.

Those offerings add to stand-up comedy shows Monday-Wednesday and live music outside the venue. Titles like “Cruella,” “Finding You” and “A Quiet Place Part II” are playing at the theater.

The Sharon L. Morse Performing Arts Center today will open the lobby and concession stands with a newly revamped bar, said Elizabeth Constant, The Sharon’s booking coordinator. The venue also has removed 6-foot floor markings and lifted limited capacity in the bathroom. Masks are encouraged, Constant said, but “guests are welcome to do what makes them feel most comfortable.”

The Sharon will continue to host The Studio Theatre Tierra del Sol shows at a 115-person capacity through the end of August, Constant said, and will operate at full capacity come Sept. 5, starting with the Villages Philharmonic Orchestra Pops Concert.

The Studio itself should be open in time for its first Season 6 show, “Broadbend, Arkansas,” by Sept. 28 at its San Marino Drive location, she added.

Savannah Center will open to full capacity for July shows and, in the meantime, will operate at 50% capacity. Today, all other COVID-19 guidelines have been lifted at that theater, said Brian Russo, executive director of entertainment.

Cart changes on the course

For golfers, the biggest change will be seen in reinstating the policy of two golf carts per foursome on The Villages’ 12 championship courses. The move is designed to reduce wear on vulnerable turf near cart paths — of particular importance following May’s hot, dry conditions.

“It’s the amount of carts that run over the same spots every day,” said Williams. “In combination with Mother Nature not supplying us with the rain we need, it’s certainly taken a toll on our playing conditions.

“If we can cut that number (of carts on course) in half, it’s only going to help.”

The deterioration is most noticeable just beyond tee boxes and before greens, as carts tend to leave the cart path in the same place and return in the same general vicinity.

“Anytime a tire goes across a (grass) blade, it creates wear,” said Palmer Legends Superintendent Dennis Swander in the fall. “It’s stressing the plant out.”

The Villages already has recorded more than 400,000 championship rounds in five months, Williams noted, a pace that could surpass last year’s record-setting total of more than 950,000.

“We want to be good stewards to our golf courses,” Williams said, “especially now that we’re doing more rounds than we did last year.”

Wiggle room if needed

There is room for flexibility, Williams noted. The two-cart policy doesn’t apply to most executive courses, where all the holes are par-3s and carts are required to stay on the path at all times anyway.

And if someone is truly uncomfortable doubling up with someone they don’t know, the extra cart is permissible — as long as only two carts venture into the fairway on any given hole. One cart will have to remain on the path.

“You can still take your own cart,” Williams said, “but the difference is there’s going to be extra restrictions on your group. One cart will need to remain on the cart path.”

The Golf & Tennis division attempted a return to the two-cart policy last October, but the timing wasn’t right. Now, with more than 75% of seniors age 65 and over in the tri-county area vaccinated, a greater comfort level exists.

“Now we’re certainly in a different place,” Williams said. “A lot of things have been lightened up, from government offices to local health officials to the CDC. We’ll follow what their guidance gives us.”

Time finally right

Likewise, Rohan said, the rising vaccination rates were among the final dominoes which needed to fall into place to make the decision to fully reopen the recreation centers.

“Our residents were so pro-active to take the necessary measures and get vaccinated,” Rohan said. “Really, the driving force was the data that we were receiving from our state and local health agencies.”

After operating at 50% capacity in May, the only caps in place at recreation centers will now be up to club and group leaders.

“Now our groups get to resume at what they had normally been, depending on their club leader,” Rohan said. “If the club chooses to modify attendance, that’s fine, but our department operations are back to normal operations.”

Rohan also emphasized that residents should remain diligent as they ease back into their lifestyle pursuits.

“Let’s use common sense measures to continue to protect each other,” he said.

At the same time, it’s a good opportunity to savor what had been missing for all those months.

“People can take that deep breath and get back to socializing and exercising and all the things that they loved prior to the pandemic,” Rohan said. “They might even appreciate it more. Those things might be more valued than ever because of what we went through. It’s a new perspective.”

Daily Sun staff writer Liz Coughlin contributed to this report. Senior Writer Jeff Shain can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5283, or