VERO BEACH - According to the annual report from the Vero Beach Lifeguard Association, 2020 saw a substantial drop-off in visitors to the guarded beaches within Vero Beach.
Total park attendance for 2020 was 729,950, the lowest annual attendance since 2016, when attendance was 698,375. In 2019, there were 841,413 beach visitors, the highest of the past decade. The lowest in recent years was 600,880 in 2013.
“The COVID-19 pandemic seems to be responsible for the low attendance,” VBLA President Erik Toomsoo said in his annual report. Confirming that explanation, April, the first full month of the pandemic, saw the lowest beach attendance of the year, with only 29,436 visitors. That was the lowest April attendance on record. By contrast, March had nearly triple the visitors April had, 85,025, and May broke the May record with 91,943.
August and December also broke records for low monthly attendance, with 45,570 in August and 45,495 in December.
Mr. Toomsoo added that “many people are spreading out along the shoreline and not on or near the lifeguarded areas to be counted. Estimates put the total number of people who visit our beach at over one million per year.”
Attendance is estimated within the lifeguarded beach parks of South, Humiston, and Jaycee Parks, including 100 yards north and south of each park. Total attendance does not include the other 89% of beach within the city limits.
Mr. Toomsoo expressed concern about the numbers of visitors spreading out away from the guarded areas, which he said makes it “difficult for lifeguards to respond quickly to emergencies in these areas. Lifeguards do not have enough ATVs to quickly and effectively respond to emergencies outside the guarded areas.”
The attendance figures also exclude the “extended hours” from 5-7 p.m. each day between May 24 and Sept. 12. Those hours are excluded from the count to allow year-to-year comparisons with years when there were not extended lifeguard hours. Compared to 2019, extended hour attendance in 2020 jumped from 46,462 to 55,165.
Medical emergencies in 2020 were among the lowest of the past decade at 261, though still higher than the 206 in 2019. The highest of the past decade was 613 in 2013.
There were 36 water rescues in 2020, an increase from 25 in 2019. “Roughly one half of all medical emergencies and water rescues occurred outside the guarded areas,” Mr. Toomsoo said. “Fortunately, there were no fatalities inside or outside the guarded areas.”
Regarding the sand added to the beach, known as “beach renourishment,” Mr. Toomsoo said that much of the sand trucked onto the beach in the winter of 2019 “has been eroded away or has migrated south.”
“South Beach Park and the area within ‘The Cove’ (Riomar to Porpoise Point) continues to see growth in its beach due to migrating sand and the formation of protective, natural dunes from restrictive beach grooming,” Mr. Toomsoo said. He added that the beach renourishment has changed the shoreline.
“There is a steeper than normal slope to the water line at South Beach Park. Strong and persistent rip currents have formed at South and Jaycee Parks where renourishment sand has been pulled into the surf zone. Steep slopes and ledges have formed in areas up and down the beach. We anticipate that the ocean will smooth out the shoreline in the coming year.”
The VBLA had no recommendation as to whether sand renourishment should continue. They did, however, recommend that the city continue to limit the frequency of beach grooming.
“It is important for the public to understand that by grooming the beach, seaweed is removed, causing the beach to be weakened,” Mr. Toomsoo said. “Seaweed is an essential part of a healthy beach. It traps seeds and other natural materials that promote dune growth. Seabirds and crabs feed on insects and bugs found in the seaweed. The disadvantage of grooming the beach can be observed at South Beach Park where the groomed area is void of dunes. In contrast the areas not groomed have propagated healthy dunes which protect private and public property during storms. The VBLA appreciates the city’s limited beach grooming techniques.”
The VBLA also repeated a prior recommendation that the lifeguards be moved from the Recreation Dept. to the Police Dept.
“Lifeguarding, like law enforcement, is a public safety function. The move would combine public safety services, allow for better coordination between the police, lifeguards and fire/rescue, qualify our lifeguard agency for more grants for equipment, which will save taxpayers money and lead to increased enforcement of illegal activities on the beach.”
The lifeguards called for more police presence on the beach to enforce the dog ordinance and other city ordinances. “Bicyclists, skateboarders and dogs are coming into the beach parks violating a city ordinance. Signs are posted but are largely ignored.”
The lifeguards also recommended that recycling bins be put back in all the beach parks. “The bins were heavily used, resulting in less waste which is helpful to the environment.”
One more recommendation the lifeguards had regarded repairs needed in restrooms.
“The restrooms at the three beach parks are in disrepair. Our neglected beach infrastructure may leave a negative impression of our city by the many thousands of people who visit our beach parks every year.”
The lifeguards continue to request donations to replace the lifeguard tower at Humiston Park, which “has fallen into disrepair and has become functionless. Lifeguards are unable to see much of the beach without having to sit outside of the tower on the boardwalk in the elements. An improved tower at Humiston Park will give lifeguards a better field of vision of Central Beach and the hotel district, protection from the elements and unsafe situations, and faster response times during beach emergencies.”
The VBLA is trying to raise money to purchase needed lifeguard equipment and to build a lifeguard tower and command center at Humiston Park. Donations can be mailed to VBLA, 1351 White Heron Lane, Vero Beach, FL 32963.