A Summer of No-Contact Rescues: How Lifeguards Have Changed Their Ways


The Avalon Beach Patrol, on the New Jersey shore, is an elite lifeguard corps that holds tryouts each year, dominates in lifesaving competitions and prides itself on protecting swimmers from treacherous ocean conditions.

But this summer, it, like so many other groups, has faced a daunting challenge: the coronavirus crisis.

Last month, roughly two dozen lifeguards in Avalon tested positive for the virus. That led to the quarantining of some 45 guards, depleting the ranks and forcing some guards to work shifts with no breaks.

“We were stretched so thin that we had to hire more lifeguards,” said Matt Wolf, the patrol’s administrative lieutenant.

As it has with so many other aspects of life, the pandemic has upended nearly every element of lifeguarding. Ocean rescues are contactless and require guards to shower and sanitize equipment afterward. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is now done with a face mask equipped with a manual pump. Morning strategy huddles are out, as are group workouts and sitting in pairs. Lifeguarding competitions have been canceled.

Many lifeguards now carry hand sanitizer and disposable masks and gloves both to give out and to protect themselves from the groups of people, often maskless, who are packing the shore, desperate for a sense of summertime normalcy.

The precautions on the beach are important, but outbreaks among lifeguards have largely seemed to emanate from group housing and post-work gatherings, which for many young workers are selling points of this quintessential seasonal job.

In New York, 13 lifeguards from two Suffolk County beaches tested positive in July after attending a barbecue. There have also been numerous smaller outbreaks among guards in the region and elsewhere in the country, including in Cape Cod, Delaware and Newport Beach, Calif.

Mr. Wolf said that after the outbreaks, he had reminded his lifeguards to use the same caution after work that they exercise on the beach. “I think they’ve gotten the message,” he said.

In New York and New Jersey, there seem to be no indications that beaches have driven an increase in infections. In New York City, new coronavirus hospital admissions have remained below 50 per day for weeks; in March and April, the city routinely saw well over a thousand each day.

Still, the pandemic’s effects have been keenly felt on New York City’s public beaches, which are some of the nation’s most crowded. The city, citing the threat of the virus, had delayed opening its 14 miles of beaches until July 1 — they typically open on Memorial Day weekend.

New York, which trains and tests most of its lifeguards in the spring, also suspended its hiring process as the crisis escalated. That left officials scrambling in June to turn out enough guards to open the beaches, and left the guards looking at a month’s less pay.

The city ended up hiring 740 lifeguards: 520 at the beaches, and 220 at the 15 public swimming pools that city officials opened late last month and early this month.

“It’s a been a crazy, surreal summer,” said Janet Fash, a lifeguard chief at Rockaway Beach in Queens.

Each morning, Ms. Fash lines up her crew members at least six feet apart and takes their temperatures. To keep social distance from beachgoers, they rope off an area around their lifeguard stands.

So far, there have been no reported virus cases among New York City lifeguards, city officials said.

Ms. Fash said her lifeguards had been making more rescues than usual, in part because there are so many beachgoers. To limit guards’ contact with swimmers, she has told her crew to be more cautious in directing people away from dangerous rip currents and deep water. She also now keeps a lifeguard posted on a surfboard just beyond the swimmers.

Officials with several lifeguarding corps and the United States Lifesaving Association say that their members are generally not tasked with enforcing social distancing, but that beachgoers sometimes ask them to.

“I tell my lifeguards, ‘Your job is to watch the water, not enforce social distancing,” Ms. Fash said. “I’ve had to tell people, ‘Sorry, there are a lot of people in the water. I can’t help you right now.’”

Lifeguards are expected to social distance and wear masks. But they cannot wear face coverings while swimming, so a rescue risks exposure to the virus.

“If a lifeguard is just wearing a Speedo, that’s not much protection,” said Cary Epstein, a 23-year veteran lifeguard at Jones Beach State Park on Long Island, which has some 225 lifeguards.

The challenge is to maintain distance from struggling swimmers — an odd notion to most lifeguards, who are largely trained to never lose contact with them.

“They call it distance rescuing, and in the lifeguard DNA, it feels almost impossible to do,” said Bruce Meirowitz, 69, a guard at Robert Moses State Park, also on Long Island, where about 150 lifeguards work.

Generally, lifeguards pass swimmers a rescue buoy, then clasp them across the chest. Now, to avoid making contact, many guards approach people from behind rather than the front, pass them the buoy and tow them in using the buoy line.

“We’re front-line workers now,” Mr. Epstein said. “We have to protect ourselves from patrons and from each other.”

It is difficult to avoid contact entirely, lifeguards say. “If we have to grab them to save them, we grab them,” Ms. Fash said.

At Robert Moses and other state-run beaches in New York, lifeguards fill out “exposure forms” after rescuing swimmers who are exhibiting possible virus symptoms, said Ryan Clark, president of the New York State Lifeguard Corps.

Guards can also temporarily close areas to swimming if too many rescues threaten the workers’ safety, said Mr. Clark, who is also a lifeguard at Jones Beach.

On rare occasions, the entire beach is closed to swimming. That happened on a recent afternoon, Mr. Epstein said, when lifeguards ran more than 50 rescues in one section of Jones Beach.

That many rescues are not unheard-of on a day with rough waves, and “normally, we’d just keep pulling people out all day long — we live for that,” Mr. Epstein said.

“But this year, there’s no way to fully protect yourself in the water unless you’re in full scuba gear,” he added. “If you tumble in the surf with a victim, now everyone is breathing on each other.”

The virus has also disrupted mundane routines. No longer do lifeguards stop each morning at a central office to grab coffee and trade barhopping stories. Now, they are more likely to have their temperatures taken and attest that they have no known exposure to the coronavirus, or symptoms like coughing or shortness of breath. At some beaches, guards sign in virtually.

In Long Beach, N.Y. — where local officials have cited crowding concerns in restricting Friday and weekend beach admission to residents — lifeguards take part in a careful choreography to maintain social distancing within their ranks, with separate groups setting up lifesaving equipment and sanitizing the beach’s 24 lifeguard stands, said Paul Gillespie, the chief of Long Beach’s 143 guards.

Mr. Gillespie, 70, also said that each morning, lifeguards get their temperature taken and fill out health questionnaires.

Another change, he said, is that lifeguards are told to sit in their cars during heavy rains, rather than to take shelter in beach shacks.

On the Jersey Shore, social-distancing measures meant that the South Jersey Lifeguard Championships, which dates to 1924, was called off over worries of crowds, said Sandy Bosacco, president of the South Jersey Lifeguard Chiefs Association.

Mr. Bosacco, who is also the captain of the Stone Harbor Beach Patrol, said that so far there had been perhaps three positive cases among his guards.

“We constantly remind them about their behavior at night,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how safe we are during the day. It’s more about when they’re on their own.”

At Rockaway Beach, workers remind one another to wear masks inside the lifeguard shack, Ms. Fash said. She also said that she had advised younger guards to avoid parties where the virus might spread.

“Some of them are going to gather no matter what,” she said. “If I hear they are going out at night, I remind them that this is about protecting everybody.”



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