CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — More than half of Maine's state parks have no lifeguards signed on to work this summer because of a lack of interest and the pandemic limiting training and recruitment.
Sean Vaillancourt, the Maine State Parks lifeguard coordinator, called it the "worst recruitment numbers in five seasons since I've been here as lifeguard coordinator."
Six out of the 11 state parks have no lifeguards as of Monday: Reid State Park, Damariscotta Lake, Range Pond, Lake St. George, Peaks Kenney and Mount Blue.
"If you're not a confident swimmer in the pool, you most definitely won't be a confident swimmer in the ocean," Vaillancourt said. "Especially out here in the ocean, now the ocean is obviously a much different place and there's a lot more risk involved with getting in the water."
The state parks are not the only places facing problems.
The city of Portland closed Reiche School's pool for the summer because of lack of staff. Aquatics Director Colleen LePage said she has about half of the staff she needs. Normally, she has 30 to 40 lifeguards and swim instructors, she said, leaving her to fill in.
"We are in dire straits," LePage said. "We are desperate for staff. Just not as many people are interested and then you couldn't train."
COVID-19 exacerbated a years-long problem. The state already faced a lifeguard shortage, but the pandemic took away training and recertification opportunities in an industry that requires close contact. LePage said she had to get creative with training, including bringing in mannequins for rescues.
"Whether there's COVID or not, you have to act. If someone's having a heart attack, you're going to have to give CPR," LePage said.
The U.S. Lifeguard Association's number one tip for water safety is to swim near a lifeguard. That's hard to do if the chairs are empty.
"It's been a challenge across the board," Vaillancourt said. "We're fortunate here at Popham that we have almost a full crew, but it wasn't easy, and we're definitely in need of a lot of lifeguards across the state."
Meanwhile, Wells Ocean Rescue, which covers three beaches (Wells Beach, Drake's Island and Crescent Beach) is "doing fairly well" with staffing, according to coordinator Erica Dube. She said they have more than 26, with a lot of guards returning from year to year to help keep their staff levels up.
The issue for state parks was present before Labor Day, and the state hoped to have it fixed before school gets out in late June.
The state parks still need 28 guards:
Popham Beach: 2
Reid State Park: 6 (no guards currently signed up)
Crescent Beach: 3
Damariscotta Lake: 3 (no guards)
Sebago Lake: 4
Range Pond: 4 (no guards)
Lake St. George: 2 (no guards)
Peaks Kenney: 2 (no guards)
Mt. Blue: 2 (no guards)
Maine's Lifeguard Academy starts in one week.