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Pandemic squashes hiring of lifeguards, officials say; safety advocates contend danger's ahead
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Pandemic squashes hiring of lifeguards, officials say; safety advocates contend danger's ahead

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Along the shore at Washington Park Beach FILE PHOTO

In this file photo from 2018, a family relaxes along the shore at Washington Park Beach in Michigan City.

MICHIGAN CITY — The city has responded to a local advocacy group criticizing the decision to not have lifeguards watching over the city's beach this summer.

Michigan City officials said multiple circumstances factored into the decision to make Washington Park Beach a “swim-at-your-own-risk” area, issuing a news release to clear up "misunderstandings” surrounding the lack of lifeguards on the city’s shores.

“Lifeguarding has always been a high-risk job,” Mayor Duane Parry said in the release. “But amid the coronavirus pandemic, those who work to protect beachgoers are facing a new level of danger.”

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The news release comes after the Great Lake Surf Rescue Project on Friday condemned the city’s decision to open the Washington Park Beach without lifeguards.

“Lifeguards saves lives,” said Dave Benjamin, Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project co-founder and executive director. “Lifeguards also educate the public about their specific beach hazards when patrons come to the beach. Removing lifeguards will cost lives and the cost to recover a body is much greater than the lifeguards’ salaries.”

According to GLSRP, there were 48 drownings in Lake Michigan in 2019, surpassing all other Great Lakes. Seven of those drownings happened in Northwest Indiana with two of them occurring in Michigan City, GLSRP data show.

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City officials contend that medical emergencies that lifeguards typically respond to put them in close proximity with others, which could put them at risk during the coronavirus pandemic. In cases where they must act to save someone from drowning, lifeguards would be coming into direct, close contact with people who may be spitting up water, coughing and gasping for air, the city said.

In addition, pandemic concerns have also affected the ability to train people to be lifeguards. On Feb. 6, Michigan City advertised for all seasonal positions, including lifeguards, and received only one application from someone returning as a lifeguard after working in the position last year, officials said. There were no other applicants with the required qualifications.

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Kathy Workman, director of the YMCA Michigan City Elston Branch, said that after testing dozens of people for certification to become a lifeguard, none of them passed the prerequisite. At this time, the American Red Cross is not allowing the hands-on portion of the certification test because of the pandemic, which has also halted hiring for the open positions.

“With all of this information and the fact that the citizens want and desire the beachfront to be opened, we must make the tough decision to swim at your own risk when visiting our beachfront,” officials said.

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Night Crime/Breaking News Reporter

Anna Ortiz is the breaking news/crime reporter for The Times, covering crime, politics, courts and investigative news. She is a graduate of Ball State University with a major in journalism and minor in anthropology. 219-933-4194, anna.ortiz@nwi.com

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