City Kicks Off Beach Season Still Wanting New Wave of Lifeguards
Surfs up, numbers down. The Parks Department says that low staffing won’t keep any beaches or pools closed for now, even though there are just 480 guards ready to go — out of a desired 1,400.
City officials opened the unofficial first weekend of summer Friday in Rockaway Beach with optimism — and safety warnings — as New York City faces another season short on lifeguards.
Parks Department Commissioner Sue Donoghue joined a long list of elected officials — alongside a giant piping plover mascot — to celebrate the opening of the beaches, which are accessible to swimmers on Saturday.
So far, none of the city’s 14 miles of beaches are expected to be closed for lack of staff even though there are just 480 guards ready to be deployed — about a third of the 1,400 Parks officials say they need to watch over shorelines and nearly 100 pools. Public outdoor pools are set to open by the end of June.
“Since last fall we’ve been focusing on lifeguards, on recruitment, on providing more opportunities for conditioning, opening up and having passes so the lifeguards can go in [to pools] to condition and be ready,” Donoghue told THE CITY following the beach event in Queens.
“It’s something that we know is vitally important and we’ve been working alongside the union to try and get as many people out there as possible.”
Unrelated to the staffing shortage, officials say, some stretches of Rockaway Beach will still be closed due to a sand replenishment project. And Astoria Pool, one of the largest in the city, will be closed for capital repairs.
The Parks Department has in the past few months rolled out several changes to boost ranks, including boosting the starting salary and adding a season-completion bonus, more free training sessions and tweaks to make the qualification process easier.
“We want to ensure safety, so we are absolutely focused on increasing training, increasing opportunities to work closely and help augment training for the lifeguards, and it’s an ongoing conversation,” Donoghue said.
“We’re going to be pushing as hard as we can on every front,” Donoghue said, noting the pay bump for lifeguards as part of a new contract with their union, District Council 37.
“Any lifeguards that are out there that worked last year, they’re going to get a higher wage plus the $1,000 bonus [this summer.]”
Workers on Friday around Beach 97th Street were hopeful for a great summer after the previous one was affected by closures due to the ongoing federal resiliency project.
“The weather was perfect last summer so I have hope for both outcomes, that we have perfect weather every weekend and the beach is safe and everyone can enjoy it here,” said Paul Sacks, who was setting up at the Boarders concession stand selling T-shirts, boogie boards, and other beach apparel.
Next door at Washed Up Beach Cafe, employees hoped for a busier summer — and fewer shark sightings than last year.
“It kind of limited it in a sense because a lot of people would want to come to this specific beach but they weren’t allowed to because of the restrictions, the little tiny shark sightings that we had, which weren’t really a big deal — the locals know,” Iyiola Aregbesola, 21, who has been cooking and on the register at the cafe for two years, said of the closures.
Co-worker Ayo Lalo, 20, said last year was “havoc” with an eroded beach that was closed to swimming.
“Hopefully it will be busier, as you can see there’s more sand,” he said. “Hopefully this year there’s a lot of lifeguards, we’re stoked for that.”
The Parks Department is still certifying lifeguards through the end of June, although it’s unlikely they’ll make their goal of more than 1,000 guards on staff this summer. It’s too late for new potential lifeguards to take the training course this year, according to Parks officials, although those who have worked the beaches or pools before can still re-certify
While worries of a lifeguard shortage coupled with the disruptive sand replenishment project were not far from beachgoers’ minds on Friday, New Yorkers were still enjoying the day.
John Johnson, 63, lives in Far Rockaway and biked more than 90 blocks on Friday before taking a break on the sand.
He said the large sand dunes obstructed his view but “I do like it if it’s going to be ecologically sound for the long term,” he said.
He moved to the peninsula four years ago from Elmont, in Nassau County, and came to the beach often as he grew up in Hollis, Queens.
“I’m a nature guy, so I love coming out,” he said. “I love going into the water, but I wait until the end of June.”
Arthur Filosa was relaxing on a bench and enjoying the sunshine a week before his 76th birthday. He moved to Rockaway from Howard Beach eight months ago after coming to the beach most of his life — starting back when the boardwalk was planks, he noted.
“It’s 100% better,” he said of the new concrete boardwalk, built after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. “Before it was all wood, you’d get splinters if you don’t wear your shoes … if you don’t wear your shoes now, you get burnt.”
Last summer’s sand replenishment project also didn’t bother him that much.
“They got it repaired, they gotta do their thing, so it wasn’t an inconvenience,” he said.