South Jersey beaches, and the lifeguards who stand watch over them, are going to look different during the summer of COVID-19.

In Wildwood, lifeguards will report directly to their stands instead of coming together for a roll call, with all the supplies and equipment they need, Beach Patrol Chief Steven Stocks said Wednesday. There will be only one guard per stand instead of the usual two, with another nearby on the beach or in the water.

“The protocol is going to be sanitize, use, sanitize,” Stocks said, adding guards will be issued neck gaiters that can be used as a mask. “So if you need to use a piece of equipment, you’re going to sanitize it first and then you’re going to use it for the designed purpose and then you’re going to sanitize it again. So that would provide two layers of sanitation before different people touch the same equipment.”

Gearing up for Memorial Day weekend — heralded as the unofficial start of summer — Atlantic and Cape May county beach patrol officials are changing the way lifeguards stand watch, make rescues and interact with beachgoers in an effort to keep everyone safe from the threat of a spike in new coronavirus cases, including providing them with masks and assigning one guard per stand. As is traditionally the case in the early part of the shore season, not all beaches will have lifeguards on duty over the holiday weekend, and many beaches will have limited coverage.

And while all beaches are following guidelines set by Gov. Phil Murphy, each municipality has final say over how it adapts to the orders, making each beach’s plans a little different.

“Our first priority is to protect our guards from the public without compromising public safety,” Margate Beach Patrol Capt. Chuck LaBarre said.

Some of the measures being considered include putting in a rope system or definitive line of six feet between lifeguards, their equipment stand and life boat, and the public, so guards can still answer questions from a distance while keeping an eye on bathers, LaBarre said.

“The one thing I’ve learned in my career in public safety is you’ve just got to adapt and adjust,” he said. “You have to protect the public from themselves. They only see it from their perspective. We want everyone to have fun and keep it as close to business as usual, but that’s going to be impossible.”

Officials are asking that the public keep their distance and wear a mask, and have also planned to restrict bathing between waist and chest deep, he said.

Atlantic City Beach Patrol Chief Steve Downey said beach entrances, of which the city has more than 100, are going to be designated as either an exit or entrance only, and there will be signs on lifeguard stands telling bathers to stay 10 feet away so lifeguards can access their equipment quickly if needed.

“The customer service skills are going to be necessary now,” Downey said. “You’re going to have to be polite when keeping people out of your specific area. We don’t want to be referees.”

But, even as city beaches are free and generally draw large crowds, the weather this weekend may limit the number of people who choose to come out, he said, giving officials and guards a chance to ease in to the new guidelines.

“I can’t see us getting slammed,” Downey said. “We’ll really have to worry when it’s really hot, really humid and the water’s really warm and the casinos open.”

Saturday is expected to have highs in the upper 60s, while Sunday and Monday may reach the low 60s, Press meteorologist Joe Martucci has forecasted. Last year, shore highs were no lower than 75 degrees except for one day.

“This is going to be a season that is going to be very different from any other,” Wildwood Commissioner Steven Mikulski said. “The influx of people that everybody is used to will not be here. There may be more day visitors that may be coming down the shore, so probably the parking lots will be a little more crowded, but again, with the influx of people, I don’t see that happening.”

But guards are preparing and training, just as they would every year, with some changes to rescue protocol.

“These guys are professional first responders,” Stocks said. “They understand (personal protective equipment). We’ve been talking about PPE forever. PPE is new lexicon to many people, but for first responders, PPE goes back to when you first start taking CPR training.”

Lifeguards have to assume that every beachgoer they come in contact with for CPR is infected with something, so they use every barrier they can to prevent coming in contact with any of their patient’s bodily fluids, Stocks said, adding that dealing with the new coronavirus isn’t that different for guards.

For CPR, lifeguards will use a bag valve mask that covers a victim’s nose and mouth while another guard does compressions, Stocks said. Both first responders should be in full PPE — eye covering, mask, gown if possible.

Rescues in the water are going to look a little different, too, Stocks said. For normal rescues, two lifeguards would go out, and one would hold onto the rescue can and secure the victim while a second lifeguard swims them in to shore.

“Obviously that’s the kind of contact that we need to avoid now,” he said. “So the guards are trained now to pass the can to the victim and say, ‘Hold on’ if they can, ‘You have to hold on.’ If they can’t hold on, you’re going to have to get in there and secure them.”

Then the guard will backstroke toward shore, keeping the victim calm, he said.

Overall, Wildwood has an advantage in that its beach has ample room for bathers to spread out in accordance with social distancing guidelines. Stocks said it’s about ¾ of a mile from the water to the Boardwalk.

“If there’s a beach in South Jersey where you can practice safe social distancing and enjoy the sand, the sun, the beautiful ocean, Wildwood is the place,” Stocks said, looking out the second-floor window of the Beach Patrol headquarters. “Because that sand that’s here in front of us is unlike any other beach in South Jersey.”

Contact: 609-272-7241

Twitter @ACPressMollyB

Staff Writer

My beat is public safety, following police and crime. I started in January 2018 here at the Press covering Egg Harbor and Galloway townships. Before that, I worked at the Reading Eagle in Reading, Pa., covering crime and writing obituaries.

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