It happened quietly, without any fanfare, but local beachgoers noticed when the city and county’s lifeguard towers, which had been shuttered, their doors and windows covered up and stairs blocked off, since Mayor Kirk Caldwell closed city parks March 18, were suddenly open again, with rescue surfboards resting on the sand out front and lifeguards in yellow shirts and red shorts surveying the ocean.
It was a reassuring and familiar sight, with a couple of changes: The lifeguards’ uniforms now included red face masks, and cones were placed in the sand to establish a 10-foot coronavirus buffer zone around the towers.
“We came back to the beaches the day the mayor reopened the parks, April 25,” said Paul Merino, captain of South Shore operations for Honolulu City and County Ocean Safety, as he sat behind the wheel of a utility transport vehicle in the shade of the beach park’s big banyan tree, flanked by two Honolulu Police Department officers on all-terrain vehicles.
But Merino wanted to make one thing clear: “We were always on duty. We have always been out there for the people, on mobile patrols,” he said of the city’s ocean safety officers during the hiatus from their towers in a safety stand-down due to a lack of personal protective equipment, as Emergency Services Director Jim Howe described it in a statement in March.
“We’ve had the PPEs for a long time. We have goggles, gloves, aprons and surgical masks, which are adequate protection in our line of work, outside in fresh air, rather than long exposures to other people indoors,” Merino said, although, he added, the gear was not effective in the ocean.
To that end, the lifeguards had developed new ways to use their equipment to keep safe distancing while conducting interventions in the water, such as extending their 12-foot-long surfboard, end to end, for those in trouble to hold onto at a safe distance while waiting for an officer on a personal watercraft to come and carry them to shore.
Of course, while a lifeguard’s main duty is anticipation and intervention, the novel coronavirus has now been added to the list of life-threatening factors they’re trying to prevent, and Merino expressed ocean safety officers’ gratitude to HPD officers, who have been energetically enforcing no-lounging and no-gathering orders on the beaches.
On Tuesday the broad white sands of Queen’s Beach, stretching from lifeguard Tower 2-E to the Kapahulu Groin, were mostly empty in the midafternoon heat: A man and a boy stood on shore while 30-some others swam, waded, floated and otherwise basked in the legendary, turquoise blue waters of Waikiki.
Except for parents pushing their children on bodyboards, most people kept the recommended 6-foot social distance apart to avoid contagion from the new coronavirus, and no one gathered in groups, which is forbidden under state and city emergency stay-at-home orders.
It didn’t hurt that beachgoers knew they were being watched, Merino said.
“Our job is to warn them about the danger, sharing our aloha, and inform them they have to go in the water to exercise and then leave,” he said, adding that if people flagrantly disobey, lifeguards will call the police, who ride across the sands on their ATVs and write tickets.
“The district commanders of districts 1 and 6, where the beaches are located, say that their officers are doing a good job of balancing enforcement with positive visitor and community relations,” said Michelle Yu, HPD spokeswoman, in an email. “Many beach and park goers have told officers that they appreciate the enforcement efforts, while others have expressed unhappiness upon receiving a warning or citation.”
But for the most part, “it’s amazing how the people of Honolulu listen,” Merino said. “I love to see families bring their kids, play, have fun and go home in an hour instead of staying all day the way they used to, because that’s how we’re going to beat this thing.”
Still, he noted, lifeguards were seeing more people coming to the beaches every day, after Waikiki’s shoreline had been virtually deserted following Gov. David Ige’s March 26 imposition of a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine on all passengers arriving in Hawaii.
In 40 years as an ocean safety officer, Merino said, he had never seen Waikiki’s ocean so empty and — rarely, for a lifeguard — serene.
“When the beaches were closed, it was epic,” he said with a smile. “The water’s clearing up, the limu’s growing back and there aren’t 50 surfing coaches out there pushing students on waves.”
This gradual reopening had lucky timing, he added, “because we haven’t had any big surf yet. That’s when you’ll get a hundred guys in the water.”
That’s when lifeguards would have to double their attention on the ocean, the captain said, and would be doubly grateful for the police backup on the beach.