BOSTON (SHNS) – The state will again next summer offer higher pay and other incentives to recruit and retain lifeguards at Department of Conservation and Recreation beaches and parks following a summer of increased activity and dangerous incidents on the water, Acting DCR Commissioner Stephanie Cooper said Tuesday.
A spate of drownings this summer prompted a larger public focus on the importance of water safety. State parks and other public outdoor spaces saw significant upticks in visitation as people sought out spaces and activities that had less risk of coronavirus transmission. The Baker administration last summer boosted DCR lifeguard pay, stepped up lifeguard hiring efforts, added multi-lingual signage at swimming areas and promoted free swimming lessons.
The governor also filed legislation that he said would help address “risky swimming.” That bill (S 2490), which was filed on July 1 and referred to the committee on July 6, got its chance at a public legislative hearing before the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture on Tuesday.
DCR has “observed a significant increase in visitation throughout the entire state park system” since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, up 40 percent overall and up as much as 200 percent for some properties, Cooper told lawmakers Tuesday.
“It’s wonderful to see so many people embracing the outdoors and the waterfronts and all that Massachusetts and our state park system has to offer. However, it does come with some challenges and we have seen those challenges mirrored at our state waterfronts and, unfortunately, we’ve seen an increase in dangerous incidents with some resulting in tragic outcomes,” she told the committee.
There have been 45 drowning fatalities in Massachusetts this year, Cooper said, citing data from the Department of Public Health, including about 29 that happened in natural bodies of water rather than a pool. The last two years have also seen a “sharp increase” in near-drownings (167 incidents in the last two years), Cooper said.
Looking just at drownings and near-drownings at state waterfronts, which Cooper did not quantify, she said “we find that many of these incidents occur outside of designated swimming areas, so outside of those areas where swimming is allowed and where we’ve invited the public and made it safe for them to do so.”
Cooper filled the committee in on DCR’s plans to continue its lifeguard recruitment and retainment efforts next summer as she testified on the “risky swimming” bill (S 2490) that Baker filed as part of his administration’s summer swimming safety suite.
The legislation would increase the maximum fine for swimming outside designated areas at state parks and beaches from $200 to $500. Fines currently range from $20 to $200 and vary depending on whether a property was once part of the Metropolitan District Commission, Cooper said.
“The idea is to increase the penalty to create a strong deterrent. So we’re trying to deter people from engaging in behavior that is dangerous. We’re trying to protect them and keep them away from areas that are not intended for swimming,” she said. Cooper added, “Undesignated waterfronts are undesignated because they may have hazardous features like murky water or steep slopes or other things that make them not just uninviting but potentially dangerous for people who may choose to swim there.”
Responding to a question from co-chair Sen. Becca Rausch, Cooper pointed out that the governor’s bill would not apply to open water swimming that conforms to DCR’s policy that allows such activity, most notably at Walden Pond. Last year, the Baker administration banned open water swimming and then reversed course after getting an earful from Walden Pond regulars.
“People in places like Walden Pond who are following the open water swimming policy, that’s basically a designated use in those areas. So this legislation will not apply to that,” the commissioner said.