Beaches reopened for swimming on July 1 following coronavirus-related closures, but a shortage of lifeguards has kept large sections of shoreline off-limits, causing some beachgoers to crowd into the open bays, locals said.
“They are squeezing everyone into the crowded bays that are staffed by lifeguards while chasing people out of the water in between,” said Coney Islander Orlando Mendez.
Only four of the 14 bays along Coney Island’s west end were open over the Fourth of July weekend because of the lifeguard shortage, with the entire stretch of shoreline between Steeplechase Pier and W. 31st street remaining closed, Mendez said. As a result, visitors crammed into the open bays between W. 32nd and W. 35th streets, where lifeguards were on duty.
“There were too many people, and they were too close,” said Mendez, who went to the beach on Sunday with his grandson. “My grandson, he said, ‘Look how many people there are there. I don’t want to go there.'”
Several sections of Coney Island Beach’s eastern side, including the section between Ocean Parkway and Coney Island Avenue, were closed after the holiday weekend because of a lack of lifeguards, said beachgoer Jill Martino.
The July 1 beach opening came only weeks after the city began employing and training lifeguards — a process that usually starts in January, but was put on hold because of the coronavirus outbreak. The city has only hired approximately 500 lifeguards this year, about 100 fewer than last year, forcing the Parks Department to open fewer bays, a Parks spokesperson said.
A Coney Island official blamed Mayor Bill de Blasio for the shortage of lifeguards and the widespread beach closures.
“I am told that there are fewer people working this summer than in previous years because the mayor could not make a decision and did not negotiate in good faith,” said Councilman Mark Treyger. “Precious time was lost.”
It wasn’t until around Memorial Day that City Hall began preparing for the beach openings in July, the deputy commissioner for the Parks Department told the New York Times.
The abbreviated timeline prevented the Parks Department from hiring enough lifeguards for opening day, since lifeguard training takes about one month to complete, Treyger said.
To add to the department’s problems, de Blasio and health officials did not negotiate with the union that represents lifeguards about increased benefits and new coronavirus protocols until shortly before the July 1 deadline, the pol said.
“They’ve had to really incorporate CDC guidelines, they’ve had to incorporate health experts,” said Treyger, adding that the mayor could have reached out to experts sometime before May. “It didn’t cost him a dime to simply ask questions. And he didn’t do it.”
To help prevent lifeguards from contracting coronavirus, all lifeguards are provided with personal protective equipment and will administer CPR using a CPR bag rather than mouth-t0-mouth resuscitation, according to the Parks Department. But they won’t receive line-of-duty benefits if they contract COVID-19 on the job — a question that District Council 37, the union that represents park workers, raised during their negotiations with City Hall, according to Treyger.
“People were asking the same questions,” he said. “Is it safe? Are there benefits?”
Treyger also expressed concerns that the limited beach openings will prompt beachgoers to crowd into the open areas, possibly violating social distancing guidelines.
“It means people are going to gather into those small sections that are open,” he said.
The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.