by Ben Adlin
South Seattle families looking for a safe place to splash around this summer might want to skip Seward Park. Lifeguards abruptly disappeared from the park’s swimming beach on Wednesday, and Seattle Parks and Recreation (SPR) says staffing shortages mean they’re unlikely to return anytime soon.
Before the change, lifeguards had supervised the beach seven days a week — from noon to 7 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends. The service began late last month and was set to extend through early September.
Now, however, the park will be without lifeguards completely.
“Because of difficulties hiring enough qualified people this summer, together with residual staffing impacts from the pandemic, there just aren’t enough lifeguards for all the planned swimming beaches,” SPR said in a release published Tuesday.
Rachel Schulkin, communications manager for SPR, encouraged would-be swimmers in South Seattle to head to one of those beaches instead. “There are several other beaches nearby,” she said. “We’d love to see you at Pritchard or Mt. Baker.”
The five other beach parks that will still have lifeguard service — Madrona, Magnuson, Matthews, Madison, and West Green Lake — are considerably farther north.
Swimming will still be allowed at Seward Park — it’s technically allowed within 50 feet of most park shores — but Schulkin advised against it. “Please swim at a lifeguarded beach,” she said, adding that people should consider wearing floatation devices and avoid swimming alone.
The risks are real. Drowning is among the leading causes of death among young people nationwide, with more children between 1 and 4 years old killed by drowning than any other cause of death except birth defects, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Among youth 1 to 14 years old, drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional death after car crashes.
Some who live near Seward Park say they’re concerned cutting lifeguard service will put more lives at risk.
“[Considering Seward is] one of the most accessible beaches in our neighborhood, I am really concerned about the safety of the kids,” Arlene Williams, a parent in Rainier Valley, told the Emerald. “The beach is always packed. I am incredibly disappointed Parks and Rec has not figured out how to get more lifeguards certified.”
Williams also called the closure “a disservice to our kids under 12 who can’t get vaccinated yet.” Outdoor activity is far less likely to transmit the virus than socializing indoors, and people 11 and younger still aren’t eligible to be vaccinated.
“Swimming outside in the summer heat at one of the largest City park [beaches] should have a lifeguard,” Williams said, adding that she hopes SPR fixes the problem “before a precious child drowns.”
Others questioned why the City pulled lifeguards from one of the most popular beaches in South Seattle rather than any of the five swimming beaches farther north, where neighborhoods are wealthier and whiter.
“Why does it seem that every policy decision that involves a take-away takes away from the community with the highest minority concentration?” said Rainier View resident Cindi Laws.
According to its press release, SPR decided to close the Seward Park beach “on a combination of equity considerations, geographic distribution, and proximity to other open beaches.” Schulkin reiterated that explanation during an interview on Thursday.
Laws, however, feels that explanation is lacking. “They say they used an equity lens,” she said. “Bull-fucking-shit.”
“They made the decision to keep the lifeguards at Pritchard Beach,” Laws explained. “Great. But that is such a tiny beach. It’s got a tiny parking lot, and there’s very very little parking in the tight neighborhood streets around there.”
Seward Park, meanwhile, is larger, easier to park at, and more accessible by public transit. “It is absolutely one of the best swimming beaches!” she said, noting that the area’s shallow bay means water at the beach is comparatively warmer than in many other parts of Lake Washington.
Schulkin, at SPR, described the department as “at the beginning of an uphill climb” as Seattle begins to emerge from the pandemic.
“We’re sorry that this is happening, and we know this is meaningful to people. We wish we were not having to close it,” she said. “We had a little bit of attrition, and that’s going to make an impact when you’re already on the brink.”
“It’s a bumpy road to reopening. It’s not going to be easy. We’re doing the best we can to quickly hire folks,” she added, noting that starting pay for lifeguards in the city is $19.70 per hour.
Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.
📸 Featured Image: Seward Park’s beach is popular for Seattle swimmers and paddlers on hot summer days. (Photo: Don Farwell)
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