CONCORD — With an alarming number of drowning deaths recently — nearly 30 in two months — the state government’s response this week tilted toward the punitive, by proposing higher fines on those swimming where they shouldn’t and banning open water swimming at popular Walden Pond.
But as Massachusetts residents headed to beaches, ponds, and pools over the July 4 weekend , the Baker administration on Friday faced questions — and in some cases criticism — from water-safety advocates and lawmakers that the response has so far been inadequate or ill-conceived.
The drownings “are a serious problem which requires a serious policy solution. “Just saying, ‘You can’t swim here’ does not actually solve the problem,” said State Representative Erika Uyterhoeven, a Democrat from Somerville who said she heard immediately from constituents upset about the Walden restrictions.
Perhaps the sharpest criticism came from open-water swimmers themselves, particularly those who ply the tranquil waters of Walden.
Within a few hours of learning about the ban, Fred Copeman, 32, of Somerville, gathered 431 signatures on an online petition asking the Department of Conservation and Recreation to rescind it and instead require open-water swimmers to tow swim buoys — which most already do.
“We feel strongly that this recent ban is a misuse of DCR energy and an infringement of our basic rights,” Copeman wrote.
A spokeswoman for the Baker administration said it had adopted “a comprehensive, multi-pronged effort” that included free swimming lessons, better signage at state parks, higher pay for lifeguards employed by the state, and extended hours at “spray decks.”
Peter Doliber, CEO of the Alliance of Massachusetts YMCAs, said it would be difficult to speculate whether increased fines, as much as $500 for swimming in nondesignated areas, would deter people from swimming in unsupervised waters.
“I do think the governor is concerned about the increases and is trying to do what he believes he can to stop people from drowning,” said Doliber.
He argued that putting more money toward lifeguard training incentives or free water safety classes in public schools “would probably go a longer way to preventing drownings than fining somebody more for swimming where they shouldn’t.” Doliber also suggested boosting public awareness campaigns, such as sending automated telephone messages or statewide text alerts about the dangers of swimming in open water.
The easing of the pandemic and the longest June heat wave since 1925 have drawn people to the water seeking relief, at a time of a shortage of lifeguards and swimming instructors, and in some cases, before local pools had opened for the season.
The surge in drownings has caused alarm around the state. In May, there were 18 drownings in Massachusetts, and there were another 10 in June, plus two this week.
The most recent drowning occurred Thursday, when a 19-year-old man went missing in Pleasure Bay while swimming with his 20-year-old brother off Castle Island. After searching for hours, members of the State Police Dive Team found Joao Alves Teixeira’s body in water about 30 feet deep.
Two days earlier, a 29-year-old Brockton man drowned in Scituate near the Edward Foster Bridge.
A national shortage of lifeguards has led to understaffed city recreation departments, meaning more empty poolside lifeguard chairs and beachfront towers.
The shortage was exacerbated by the pandemic, which held up 30-hour certification courses. Another casualty was swimming lessons. Because every YMCA across the country closed their pools at some point during COVID-19, lessons were put off.
Earlier this summer in an interview with the Globe, the American Lifeguard Association predicted “lots of unguarded beach fronts and lots of closed pools.” B.J. Fisher, the association’s director of health and safety, also predicted a surge in summertime drownings.
When pools close and summer temperatures rise, youngsters will still find swimming holes, Fisher said, whether they’re jumping fences for pool swims or hitting the region’s many ponds and lakes.
And that’s just going to make things worse, Fisher told the Globe.
Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Benjamin Downing, who called on Baker this week to declare a heat emergency amid the record temperatures, said Friday that the proposed fines were “aimed at punishing those most in need of our state support.”
“Not only will this approach do nothing to address public health risks involving water recreation,” Downing said, “it will also disproportionately impact our most vulnerable residents across the state.”
A spokesperson for House Speaker Ronald Mariano also argued that higher fines would not work, and further, would have a disproportionate impact on the poor.
A better approach would be to increase access to swimming resources so that people of all backgrounds can learn to swim affordably, added Uyterhoeven, the representative from Somerville.
Although people have been swimming across Walden Pond for decades, it wasn’t authorized by the state until 2014, when the Department of Conservation and Recreation created a set of rules for open-water swimmers to follow, such as restricting swimmers from coming within 100 feet of the boat launch area and other designated swim spots. Those rules appear to be null and void now.
The new DCR rules at Walden Pond, which went into effect Friday, said visitors will be asked to “cease open water swimming” and swim only in areas marked off by ropes and buoys. Walden has long been a popular spot for open-water swimming.
On hot summer days, the pond is typically so popular that the parking lot is closed for long stretches of the afternoon. Small pondside nooks are occupied by sunbathers and swimmers. Long-distance swimmers swim by, many towing small orange inflatable floats.
On Friday morning, Sam Parkman and Dave Bryant came out for a swim in a drizzle as a layer of fog hung over the glassy, still water. Both men swam under the ropes briefly in a symbolic act of civil disobedience.
Walden “was brought to national prominence because of Henry David Thoreau, who basically invented the idea of civil disobedience,” Bryant said. “We went under the ropes for a minute or two today just as a nod to Henry.”
Bryant said the ban on open-water swimming at Walden “seems like a bit of a bureaucratic overreaction to an unfortunate string of events.”
“I hope there will be some accommodation made,” he added. “There’s got to be a better solution than all or nothing.”
Parkman said he believes enforcing the new rules will be difficult, especially on those days when the entire pond is ringed with people seeking relief from the heat.“ If hundreds of people are here — as they are every day — what are they going to do? Run around the expansive beach and say, ‘Here’s a ticket for you, and here’s a ticket for you?’”
Another swimmer, Peter Halpert of Lincoln, who swam in the designated area of the pond for 45 minutes on Friday, was upset by the new rules.
“This is holy water,” he said. “It’s spiritual and religious event to swim in this pond. It’s one of the most beautiful things you can do in life, is swim in this pond without any boundaries.”
Travis Andersen, Martin Finucane, and Emma Platoff of the Globe staff, and correspondents Ivy Scott and Jasper Goodman contributed to this report.
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