When hordes of sweaty New Yorkers make their annual pilgrimage to Rockaway Beach this Memorial Day, they may notice more red flags and fewer lifeguards.
Along some of the most heavily-used and transit-accessible stretches of coastline, the tall plywood chairs will be replaced by signs warning beachgoers to stay out of the water. Between Beach 86th Street and Beach 116th Street, the Parks Department announced this week, swimming won’t be allowed at all through at least July 15th — confirming what many had feared for weeks.
The ocean ban is being touted as a compromise. City officials had initially discussed blocking access completely to the 30-blocks of shoreline, where the US Army Corps of Engineers is currently building out stone jetties as part of a long-awaited, $336 million resiliency project.
But after backlash from local officials and community members – including boardwalk vendors desperate for early summer foot traffic – the city Parks Department agreed to allow “sand and recreation access” along most of the 1.5 mile area.
Beyond the headache of dodging dump trucks mid-tan, that arrangement may also have grave consequences: those who inevitably enter the ocean will have no one to rescue them if they get into trouble. Local lifeguards told Gothamist that leaving such a prime length of shore unsupervised is a recipe for tragedy.
“When they open up the sand in a busy area, people are going to try to take their swim,” said Janet Fash, a chief lifeguard on Rockaway Beach. “If a lifeguard is observing, at least they can effect a rescue if something goes wrong. Right now there’s no plan for that.”
Since 2019, eight people have drowned on city beaches between Memorial Day and Labor Day, according to data provided by the Health Department. Five of those fatalities have occurred on Rockaway beaches either after guarded hours or when they were closed to swimming.
Most recently, an 18-year-old from Maspeth drowned last summer after the city banned swimming between Beach 93rd and Beach 102nd Street due to beach erosion.
“The ocean lifeguards were devastated,” Fash said. “We never want to see that again.”
At the time, the Parks Department, which employs the lifeguards, said the beach wasn’t wide enough to offer sufficient visibility for a lifeguard post. But Fash notes that plenty of other municipalities allow lifeguards to patrol the oceanfront on small beach vehicles.
Another Rockaway lifeguard recalled the helpless feeling of watching FDNY teams searching for the drowned teenager last summer. He accused the Parks Department of prioritizing its own liability concerns over the safety of swimmers.
“If Parks decides to close the area, they relieve themselves of any responsibility,” said the lifeguard, who asked for anonymity to avoid professional repercussions as he wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. “Their mentality isn’t about safety, it’s about protecting their own skin and getting through the summer without incident.”
A spokesperson for the Parks Department, Dan Kastanis, highlighted the “impeccable record” of the city’s lifeguard corps, noting that there had been no drownings during lifeguard open hours in almost a decade.
He said that Parks Enforcement Patrol officers would be policing areas where lifeguards were absent – and would have the power to issue tickets to swimmers who refuse to leave the water. But in the past, such efforts have had limited success in dissuading swimmers from entering unguarded waters.
Adding to the complications, the Parks Department is once again battling a nationwide shortage of lifeguards. The lack of staff last summer prompted protests among lifeguards on Rockaway, as well as canceled swim lessons and water aerobics classes citywide.
Kastanis said the agency was in the process of training lifeguards and would have a final count around July 4th.
According to Fash, the major closures this year, along with the ongoing problem of erosion and lifeguard shortages, should inspire a new approach from the city – one that involves greater flexibility of deployments.
“It’s going to be a fluid event, and Parks is not good at that. They’re good at saying this is going to be closed. But people are going to swim there, and that’s a concern,” she said. “New York City has to get better at giving the lifeguards the tools they need to manage an ocean beach.”