Facing budget constraints associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Duluth sharply curtailed lifeguard staffing at the Park Point Beach last year. But this year, the popular Lake Superior swimming spot will return to a full complement of lifeguards, with staffing expected to return to pre-pandemic levels, thanks to $25,000 in funding from Duluth Tourism Tax Fund.
Amid the coronavirus outbreak last year, throngs of people flocked to Duluth's beaches seeking outdoor recreational opportunities and causing concern for the safety of swimmers in the often unpredictable waters of Lake Superior.
"It was a concern of ours, which is why we pushed really hard to bring back lifeguards even for the shortened season we had last year," said Alicia Watts, assistant manager of Duluth's parks and recreation division, recalling how the city and the Duluth Area Family YMCA pooled resources to staff the Park Point Beach at least three days a week, beginning on July 10, 2020. Lifeguards usually begin the season on Memorial Day weekend.
Emily Ranta, executive director of the local YMCA, expects yet another unusually busy summer on Park Point beaches this year, as people continue to exercise caution and seek relatively safe outdoor activities.
"We are anticipating increased outdoor activity again this year, with people's varying levels of comfort and additionally probably increased levels of tourism," Ranta said.
PREVIOUSLY: Park Point lifeguards return July 10
While there are miles of public beach on Park Point, Watts pointed out that only a relatively small portion of the beach fronting the Park Point Beach House has lifeguards during designated hours.
"There are a lot of places where you can access the water and swim, but it's important to exercise good judgment, because rip currents can develop on any piece of the beach," she said.
She stressed the importance of swimming only when conditions permit and said the city will begin informing people of water conditions using flags and online notices at parkpointbeach.org, beginning May 26.
When red flag warnings are issued, Watts urges people to refrain from swimming. At those times, lifeguards are pulled from duty.
Lifeguards are in short supply throughout much of the state, as many programs that certify people in rescue techniques were disrupted by the pandemic.
But Ranta said the Duluth YMCA was aware of the situation.
"We anticipated the backlog and have had basically week after week of lifeguard certification courses. We are not yet full. We still have positions open. However, we are fortunate to have a solid team with a lot of returning guards. So, that has been extremely helpful in getting and ready to run this summer," she said.
She noted that many other lifeguard corps in the state have not been as lucky, with many struggling to find enough qualified staff this year.
"We are fortunate in the respect that we have an internal pipeline, and we don't rely on the schools or community ed to train lifeguards. We have an internal pipeline right out of the classes we offer," Ranta explained.
Watts said the Park Point Beach House will offer no concession sales this summer but added that the city intends to reach out to food truck operators who may be able to service beachgoers.
Ranta said she hopes people take full advantage of the beach this summer.
"We encourage families and individuals to use the guarded portion of the beach during the hours available. It is a section of beach that is less likely to have rip currents, which is one of the reasons that it was designated as a swimming area," she said.
"We have extra eyes helping to keep you and your family safe."
Lifeguards will begin staffing the beach Saturday, May 29, and will continue to do so until Sept. 6. Details regarding specific hours can be found at duluthmn.gov/parks/parks-listing/park-point.