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Robust safety plans in place for U.S. Open’s return to Pinehurst

By Jaymie Baxley 

Last year’s U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club was, by most accounts, a low-key affair. The relatively small size of the venue meant tickets were limited to just 22,000 people — a far cry from the throngs at previous editions of the long-running golf championship.

That won’t be the case when the event returns to North Carolina this month for the first time since 2014. About 240,000 fans are expected to descend on the Pinehurst Resort and Country Club in Moore County between June 13 and June 16, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Golf Association.

If that estimate holds, the number of visitors will easily dwarf the number of residents during the three-day event: The 2020 U.S. Census found fewer than 100,000 people living in Moore County, which is 75 miles southwest of Raleigh in the state’s Sandhills region.

Scot Brooks, deputy director of Moore County Public Safety, said local, state and federal agencies have spent months developing “a very large, comprehensive plan” for handling the influx of travelers. That plan, he said, covers a list of concerns ranging from the mundane to the hypothetical.

Some of the most pressing concerns are connected to attendees’ health. Providers and first responders are likely to see an uptick in patients needing treatment for heat-related issues.

Preparing for the unknown

Some hazards can be difficult — if not impossible — to predict at an outdoor event as large as the U.S. Open.

The weather, Brooks said, can be a “big challenge” because thunderstorms tend to “pop up really quickly” in the Sandhills around this time of year.

“Having hail, lightning or damaging wind isn’t good when you’ve got 50-or-so thousand people on the course with no place to make shelter,” he said.

Storms aren’t the only weather-related concern. Katherine Newell, an emergency medicine physician and assistant medical director at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital, said sweltering conditions on the 18-hole course have been known to cause heat exhaustion, dehydration and sunburns among guests.

Newell said FirstHealth of the Carolinas, which runs the hospital and is the county’s largest health care provider, will have volunteers stationed at tents throughout the course to assist attendees with “lower acuity complaints.” The hospital is also launching a command center with “multidisciplinary teams” to help manage the anticipated spike in patient visits, she said.

“FirstHealth has made some surge plans as well, if the need arises for surge capacity,” she said, referring to the hospital. “We’ve got some primary, secondary and even tertiary locations in the case of large increased patient volumes.”

The 402-bed facility did not reach capacity when the U.S. Open last came to town a decade ago. That championship was played a few days before the U.S. Women’s Open in Pinehurst, and the back-to-back events had a combined attendance of more than 340,000.

At this year’s event, FirstHealth will be distributing discount codes for telehealth services. Newell said the promotion, which is available to visitors and residents, is meant to keep people with ailments that are manageable remotely from overcrowding the hospital’s emergency department.

Nonetheless, the department’s staff will have their work cut out for them, according to Brooks.

“With a massive amount of people like this, we routinely have trips, slips, falls and injuries associated with that,” he said. “There’s also the potential for heart attacks and strokes. Some of the people who visit are not the healthiest people in the world, and they bring their medical conditions with them.”

Brooks said paramedics will have bicycles and golf carts to get around the 196-acre course. Special routes will be cleared for ambulances to quickly transport patients to the hospital, which is less than two miles away.

Lessons learned

Much has changed since German golfer Martin Kaymer won the 2014 tournament in Pinehurst.

Back then, attendees couldn’t use their phones to meet virtually with FirstHealth physicians. They couldn’t even bring their phones on the course — a restriction the USGA lifted beginning with the 2015 championship in Washington.

Large, non-transparent water bottles were also prohibited, mostly due to safety concerns in the wake of the still-recent Boston Marathon bombing. Eric Steimer, senior director of U.S. Open Championships for the USGA, said the unpopular policy led to the course’s first-aid stations being “inundated with people looking for water.”

The USGA learned from that experience, he said. Colored water bottles no larger than 32 ounces will be allowed at the upcoming championship, and fans can refill them at hydration stations installed along the course.

“There’s a little more flexibility in terms of what you can bring in to properly plan for your day,” Steimer said. “If it’s going to be hot, we encourage all our fans to take advantage and bring that Corkcicle or Yeti water bottle that you have.”

A focus on security 

The terror attack at the Boston Marathon ushered in an era of more extensive security at outdoor athletic events — a legacy that is reflected in the comprehensive safety planning for the U.S. Open.

“With our off-course security, there are concerns about traffic and traffic flow, detours and getting buses in and out of the course efficiently and safely,” Brooks said. “From an on-course standpoint, there are concerns about the potential or the threat for some type of protest or violent situation — someone coming there with the intent of doing harm.”

Historically speaking, the risk of such an attack would appear to be low. No violent incidents were recorded at the three previous U.S. Opens in Pinehurst. No major violent incidents have been recorded at any U.S. Open, for that matter.

But the possibility, however remote, isn’t being ruled out by officials. Steimer said agents from the FBI and State Bureau of Investigation will be conducting surveillance during the event.

“Those two groups really support us heavily from an intelligence side in terms of understanding any type of threats that are existing out there,” he said. “Not necessarily threats specific to our championship, but perhaps specific to Pinehurst or the state or, frankly, just the sports industry as a whole given all the geopolitical concerns going on.”

Still, Steimer acknowledged that the USGA can only do so much to keep players and patrons safe. Ultimately, he said, there’s a “robust public safety community here that really has to come together to put this on.”

“The Village of Pinehurst’s police force is only so big, and they also have the community to worry about, not just the championships,” said Steimer, who lives in the area. “It does truly take a village to be able to host one of these, and that’s where we really rely heavily on the state support as well as county support to help build out this plan.”

Brooks said representatives from the agencies that supported the U.S. Open in 2014 sat down after the event to discuss their performance. It’s something he said they do after every major golf championship in Moore County.

“We meet as a bigger group and have what’s called an after-action review, and we develop an improvement plan,” he said. “That gives us an opportunity to look at any gaps that we had, and it gives us several years to be able to try to fill those gaps.”

The post Robust safety plans in place for U.S. Open’s return to Pinehurst appeared first on North Carolina Health News.

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