With Beaches Closed, Experts Warn of Increased Risk for Drowning

As temperatures soar, you might be tempted to jump into Lake Michigan.

But with Chicago beaches closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, water safety advocates say there’s an increased risk of drowning. 

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So far this year, at least 21 people have drowned in Lake Michigan – including six in the Chicago area, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, which tracks drownings. 

On Sunday night, a 28-year-old man was pulled out of the water at Diversey Harbor in critical condition, the Chicago Tribune reported.

“This year with the beaches closed, we see that people are more congregated in areas that are less safe to swim,” said Halle Quezada, the founder of the Chicago Alliance for Waterfront Safety (CAWS). “So people are going to places where they’re not familiar with the water or with the risks.”

Instead of entering the water through beaches, people are entering via cement walls, like those near Diversey Harbor, or rocks, like those at Promontory Point, where there aren’t any lifeguards. Or they’re going to the beaches before or after lifeguards are on duty.

“They’re actually swimming at a more dangerous spot,” said Dave Benjamin, executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project. “You’re going to have drop-offs. You’re gonna have dangerous currents. You’re gonna have the waves rebounding of the pier. Even if it’s a small 1- or 2-foot wave you’re going to have a washing machine.” 

Earlier this summer, there were no lifeguards at the closed beaches, though many of the “social distancing ambassadors” along lakefront are lifeguards. In early July, CAWS sent a letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot asking that the lifeguards work at the closed beaches, just as they would on red flag days, when conditions are to hazardous for swimming. The city has since complied.

“We do have some people on the beach, but even if there’s lifeguards there, the lake is dangerous,” Lightfoot said earlier this month in a press conference. “The lake levels are up at historic levels.”

Quezada said the lifeguards aren’t fully equipped.

“While the lifeguards are now on the beaches they are not with their full equipment, they’re not prepared to make a rescue safely should there be an emergency,” Quezada said.

Lightfoot said she doesn’t expect beaches to be reopened anytime soon.

“It’s not just about being outside which is, in some ways, safer, but it’s about congregation,” Lightfoot said earlier this month. “We open up the beaches, people are gonna flock to the beaches. (It’s) much harder to impose social distancing and really emphasize decompression of those kinds of spaces.”

An alternative to keeping all of the beaches open is to just open a few, Benjamin said.

“Maybe North Avenue Beach, which has a high probability of people overrunning the beach, but some of the neighborhood beaches could safely be opened because there’s reduced parking there, reduced access unless you live in the area,” he said.

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