The reopening of New York City's public pools, a typically joyous occasion, was marred by unannounced closures and extended waits on Tuesday — the latest blow in a series of setbacks for the city's summer swimming programs.
Despite an ongoing shortage of lifeguards, the Parks Department assured city residents this week that they would open all 51 of the city’s pools to the public. But hopeful swimmers from Harlem to Bushwick said they arrived at the gates of their local public pools to find them locked.
At the intersection of 135th Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan, young residents awaited the opening of the Abe Lincoln mini pool, despite an official explanation that the pool lifeguards never showed up.
“I noticed all the little kids were standing outside with their towels,” said Somar Alston, a Harlem resident who walked by two hours after it was supposed to open. “They said, ‘We’re waiting around to see if a lifeguard shows up.’”
At Williamsburg’s McCarren Park, more than half of the pool was closed off, leading to lengthy lines and confusion. A lifeguard – who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record – said the city had deployed half as many lifeguards to the pool as normal.
Outside the gates, Samantha Nieves said she had been waiting more than two hours with her 6-year-old son. This was the pair’s second swimming attempt of the day, she said, after they arrived at the Bushwick Pool to find it was closed.
“Summer’s going to be brutal,” Nieves said.
None of the changes were immediately reflected on the city’s website, which states that all pools are open for general swim. A spokesperson for the Parks Department, Crystal Howard, said the agency would “adjust our pool operations daily based on lifeguard headcounts, and only open them where we have adequate lifeguard coverage to keep swimmers safe.”
But the Parks Department has also warned repeatedly about the shortage of lifeguards this year, which they said could prompt closures or shortened hours in the coming weeks. As of two weeks ago, the city had hired fewer than 500 lifeguards, officials said, roughly half as many as previous years.
Efforts to properly staff city beaches and public pools has meant sacrificing a range of other popular programs. Earlier this month, the city announced the cancelation of free swim lessons and dedicated adult lap swim at its outdoor public pools.
Beginning this week, the Parks Department has also slashed swimming hours at its recreation centers – city-run facilities that offer a range of fitness activities in exchange for a low-cost membership – according to multiple people Gothamist spoke to Tuesday.
At the Chelsea Recreation Center, a sign greeted visitors informing them that pools were closed “until further notice.” In Southeast Queens, the Roy Wilkins Center ended its morning lap session, according to an employee at the site. In Williamsburg, swimmers arrived on Monday night to find the pool’s previous 8 p.m. closure had been moved up to 4 p.m.
“I’m honestly kind of pissed,” said Ian Donnelly, an East Williamsburg resident. “It’s the summer, the public pools aren’t doing their lap swims and to have the rec center cut their hours significantly just puts a lot of people out. It feels like the city gave up on it.”
In recent days, Mayor Eric Adams has framed the lifeguard shortage as a national problem outside of New York City’s control. But he has also resisted calls to increase wages or pay bonuses to returning lifeguards — something several other municipalities have done in order to attract new hires.
I’m honestly kind of pissed ... It feels like the city gave up on it.
Even as New York State increases starting pay for lifeguards up to $20 an hour, the first-year pay for city lifeguards remains unchanged at $16 an hour, or $1 an hour more than minimum wage. Several lifeguards told Gothamist that the low pay rate has contributed to the ongoing shortage. A decade ago, city lifeguards started at $13.71 an hour – more than $6 above the minimum wage at the time.
“They are pinching pennies on every type of worker right now in salary and head count and we are all just hurting from it,” said one city employee, who asked to remain anonymous because they weren’t authorized to speak to the press. “This is the version of it where you see the service impact immediately.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Rosemary Martinez, accompanied by her three kids and two grandchildren, was waiting to enter the pool at McCarren Park. They arrived at 1 p.m., she said, and hadn’t made it inside before the one-hour break to clean the pool at 3 p.m. But she wasn’t giving up on the first swim of the season.
“Where do you go with your children when your children have asthma? Or they're hot or they suffer from heat rashes? Where do you cool them off if everything’s at capacity?” she said. “It’s a lot to stand here and then suffer the consequences of the city not paying the lifeguards.”