During a recent press conference on the COVD-19 pandemic, Gov. John Carney would not rule out reopening Delaware beaches by Memorial Day, but he said a lot would have to change before it would happen.
Despite the ominous report, local beach patrols are preparing for summer as if they’ll be needed in full force for the three-day holiday that marks the traditional kickoff to the beach season.
Rehoboth Beach Patrol Capt. Kent Buckson said this is the time of year when he’s getting all his ducks in a row so when the doors open Memorial Day weekend, he and his staff can hit the beach running.
Now, he said, during an interview April 23, he’s still doing the paperwork and supply ordering typically done, but he’s also preparing game plans for the beach being closed, the beach being open with restrictions, and the beach being open.
“Right now, I’m kind of in a holding pattern. There’s a lot of uncertainty,” said Buckson, who does not anticipate the need for 100 percent staffing by Memorial Day at this point.
In an interview April 22, Dewey Beach Patrol Capt. Todd Fritchman said he’s preparing for his team to be in full force by May 22. He said he’s nearly filled out his 51-person roster for the summer.
In a typical year, Fritchman conducts tryouts over a series of weekends at the Sussex Family YMCA in Rehoboth. This year he expected to do the same, he said, but the morning of, after marking out appropriately distanced spaces for applicants and making sure his megaphones were ready, he was told by the town that he wasn’t allowed to hold tryouts in person.
“After being told they couldn’t happen, I went back to the lifesaving station and got to work figuring out what to do next,” said Fritchman.
He developed a modified tryout program that involved applicants videoing themselves completing the necessary components – swimming, running and other physical activity – with a witness. He said they had about 30 applicants, which is about average for any year.
“Applicants were in wetsuits swimming in lakes, rivers and bays,” said Fritchman, who admitted he was somewhat skeptical. “We had never done anything like that before, but it worked extremely well. I just had to review a lot of tape.”
Rehoboth Beach had planned to conduct tryouts in late March and early April, but Buckson said those have been postponed until mid-May when there’s a better idea of what kind of restrictions will be in place. He said he doesn’t want to hire people if there’s no need because it’s not fair to the individual, and he’s got to watch the beach patrol’s budget.
Fritchman said, personally, he’s in favor of figuring out a way to reopen the beaches and restaurants that support almost all of the local businesses. He said it may mean requiring lifeguards to limit the number of people on the beach and restaurants to limit the number of tables, but something has to be done.
“There should be a task force created of local stakeholders,” said Fritchman. “It’s going to require a lot of homework, but there are ways to make it happen. Maybe it means 20 people per block on the beach, but something is better than nothing.”
Buckson said if the beaches remain closed through Memorial Day, he will have a skeleton crew on hand to help the police department enforce the beach and Boardwalk closure. If there are restrictions in place, he said, he’s preparing to allow swimming, walking and other activities, but there could be restrictions on sunbathing.
“This is uncharted territory,” said Buckson. “We’ve been trying to figure out the best course of action. We all want the city to reopen, but it’s got to be done safely.”
Fritchman said he and his staff are preparing now for a summer of enforcing social-distancing guidelines. He said the profession’s fundamentals go a long way in imposing new rules.
“We’ve got bullhorns on our four-wheelers and our lifeguard whistles,” he said. “Nothing is better at getting someone’s attention than a lifeguard whistle.”
The Delaware State Parks beach patrol fills in the gaps of beach coverage from Cape Henlopen State Park south to the Indian River Inlet.
Shauna McVey, state parks spokesperson, said the state parks held several lifeguard tryouts prior to the current state of emergency and hired about a dozen new lifeguards from those tryouts. About two-thirds of the veteran guards are returning for the 2020 season, she said in a April 23 email.
McVey said two lifeguard tryouts, with 27 candidates applicants, were cancelled. Pool facilities are closed and additional tryouts can’t be scheduled at this time, she said.
McVey said the state parks are also unable to schedule the required 100 hours of training for rookie lifeguards, and veteran lifeguards are unable to do necessary preseason training with pools and gyms closed.
“We are in a holding pattern until we can hold more tryouts and hire additional lifeguards,” said McVey.
Editor’s Note: Comments from the Delaware State Parks were received after the deadline for the print edition.