Newport Beach Junior Lifeguards program gets a lifeline

An instructor leads Newport Beach Junior Lifeguards
An instructor leads Newport Beach Junior Lifeguards along the sand as they begin their seven-week training program in 2016.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)
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Evolving state and Orange County public health guidelines could loosen pandemic-driven restrictions on the popular Newport Beach Junior Lifeguards program.

The marquee, city-run summer youth program had been feared largely lost just a few weeks ago as organizers said they would limit enrollment to the oldest participants in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Sweeping statewide social and commercial restrictions were only just starting to relax when local officials, who had already postponed decisions on what if any programming they could offer, said they could only put together a limited camp.

But state guidance released earlier this month on next steps for the hospitality and recreation sectors — including day camps — could salvage what hundreds of area children would call their “super epic summer.”


“Although this is extremely exciting for us, it’s been a lot of work,” Newport Beach Fire Chief Jeff Boyles, whose department oversees the lifeguard division, told the City Council on Tuesday. “Trust me, as a parent of two very active teenagers, I would like to see a program exist in a healthy, safe manner as well.”

The county-wide death toll from the coronavirus is now 198 with 92 in skilled nursing facilities, continuing a steady pattern of the most medically fragile, and generally elderly, patients being more likely to succumb.

June 10, 2020

Last month, fire department officials said the seven-week program would be pared down to only about 150 of the oldest participants, ages 14 and 15, and canceled for the younger kids who make up the majority of the long-running program. Junior Guards teaches ocean safety, physical fitness and citizenship every year to more than 1,300 children as young as 9, and has been a local fixture for 36 years.

The program’s progress is contingent on approval at the county level, which City Manager Grace Leung said she is anticipating this week.

The revived program would still be modified — instruction will be spread out around the Balboa Pier, Newport Pier and Marina Park areas, beyond the usual Balboa Pier headquarters, and require more staff to supervise smaller groups, more equipment and more sanitation. Only the oldest children will get the full seven weeks, starting June 23. Everyone else will be on a five-week plan starting July 6.

In normal years, mild, common bugs blast through the close quarters and large groups. Although children and young adults have been largely spared from severe COVID-19 illness, they can be asymptomatic carriers, and Boyles said last month he had to protect his staff and the community.

Councilman Kevin Muldoon, who has previously spoken in support of maintaining the program this year, praised fire department staff for being nimble and responsive. He said they would have overwhelming support.

“There are a lot of lifeguards who bar tend who’d probably be happy to be doing lifeguarding this summer since bar tending might not be as busy,” he noted.

Councilwoman Joy Brenner said the council got about 1,100 emails on the matter and has read them all.

“Although the public pressure was important and it’s nice to know how much everybody loves this program, including my family from almost the beginning, that was not the deciding factor for you. The deciding factor for you was that you could offer a safe program,” she told officials. “I think if you didn’t feel like you were offering a really safe program it wouldn’t have mattered how many emails we got or anything, and I appreciate that.”

Newport Beach chief lifeguard Mike Halphide estimated about 1,100 children would sign up this year, based on lower than usual registration for the eldest cohort. But the second start date is, appropriately, Ben Carlson Day, when local lifeguards honor the anniversary of the first and only line of duty death of a Newport lifeguard.

Halphide said that despite the abbreviated schedule the program will be more expensive this year with the modifications. The City Council will discuss funding at its next meeting June 23.

Registration could begin for the younger age groups as soon as Monday at

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