Memorial Day honors those who died in active military service for our country. The weekend leading up to it also marks the unofficial start of summer for many Americans. To say that Memorial Day weekend 2020 will go down in history as a remembrance like no other hardly covers it.
Traditional commemorations were replaced by virtual ones. Around the country, people had to think outside of the box to make sure remembrances of the sacrifices made by members of the military were observed despite the physically distant world we now live in. Many of these events also included a tribute to those who have died during the coronavirus pandemic.
Though rain kept people inside in some parts of the country, warm weather had Americans flocking to lakes, beaches and parks. While an estimate of total beach attendees around the country is not yet available, it is safe to assume it could be 1 million or more.
At the same time, different approaches by local and state governments have left many Americans bewildered about what outdoor behavior is considered safe, according to a New York Times report. “Even the simplest outdoor activities seem fraught with a thousand questions and calculations,” the reports says.
After weeks of hunkering down with stay-at-home orders because of the coronavirus pandemic, the holiday weekend coincided with actions in 50 states that have loosened such restrictions. We now recognize the toll isolation can take, particularly for those already suffering from conditions like depression and anxiety.
But these are not the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. As reported by CNN, White House coronavirus task force member Dr. Anthony Fauci pronounced this week that going outside was fine, “with cautious measures.” Other experts are advocating for what they call a “harm-reduction approach” to social distancing. It is a concept that hinges on minimizing the negative consequences of potentially risky behaviors.
“Interviews show a growing consensus among experts that, if Americans are going to leave their homes, it’s safer to be outside than in the office or the mall. With fresh air and more space between people, the risk goes down,” the Times writes.
“I think going outside is important for health,” said Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. “We know that being outdoors is lower risk for coronavirus transmission than being indoors. On a sunny, beautiful weekend, I think going outside is indicated, but I also think there are things to do to reduce our risk.”
Most research suggests you are less likely to catch or transmit the virus if you are outside, wearing a mask and keeping your distance from others. It is considered safer to be outdoors because even a light wind will quickly dilute the virus. But that does not mean that risks are gone entirely.
“Probably the biggest risk for summer water recreation is crowds,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health reminded the Times.
During many of last weekend’s events and commemorations, essential workers such as nurses and doctors were also acknowledged, along with police officers and firefighters. Left out was an important group of protectors: our lifeguards.
“Lifeguarding has always been a high-risk job. But amid the coronavirus pandemic, those who work to protect beachgoers are facing a new level of danger,” Time magazine recently pointed out.
“Open water lifeguards are trained to act as first responders for all manner of medical emergencies that can happen at the beach, often putting them in close proximity to beach patrons,” it adds. Those lifeguards interviewed for the report from around the country expressed concern that the unique nature of lifeguarding will lead to a high level of risk of exposure to coronavirus this summer.
On May 18, at the time of the report, no foolproof method to guarantee lifeguards protection from infection was available. Questions such as how to safely perform CPR or how to prevent the spread of the virus among their own ranks had no clear answer. For teenage and college-aged lifeguards who work at seasonal beaches, the status of some of their summer jobs was still up in the air.
As reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 25% of people infected with the virus may not show symptoms. According to Cary Epstein, the owner of professional lifeguarding service Epi-Center Rescue and a longtime lifeguard at Jones Beach in Wantagh, New York, this statistic alone requires lifeguards to operate under the assumption that everyone they come in contact with on the beach is infected and to interact with them as such.
“When lifeguards need to rush to the aid of a swimmer who is struggling in the water, (personal protective equipment) that works on land isn’t applicable,” says Time. “There’s this whole other issue of how do we have the same conversation (about safety) when we talk about making water rescues. Because that’s what we do,” Epstein adds.
It is important we consider what they do and these new risks they are being required to take. During the 2018 heat wave that lasted from Friday, July 20 to Sunday, July 22, the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s lifeguard division responded to 477 ocean rescues, 521 medical aids and 621 emergency vehicle rescues. Yes, lifeguarding has always been a high-risk job. But amid the coronavirus pandemic, those who work to protect us face an entirely new level of danger.