COVID-19 concerns sink Laguna Beach’s Junior Lifeguards program for the summer

Lars Knepper
Lars Knepper runs to shore while competing in last year’s “Ironchild” competition, which is held on the last day of each session.
(Courtesy of Dawn Knepper)

Lars Knepper would rather be at the beach.

Normally at this time of the year, he’d be down at the beach with dozens of other junior lifeguards. Now, in what would be his third year, Lars, 10, is at home watching dishes dive into the sink instead of diving into the ocean himself.

The Laguna Beach Junior Lifeguards program is officially canceled.

The city of Laguna Beach announced Wednesday that it would be canceling its last session of the summer for the 2020 Junior Lifeguards program, which teaches ocean safety, rescue techniques and marine safety operations.

Marine Safety Captain Kai Bond said the city was monitoring the state’s plan for reopening, but saw that the next stage for reopening was not expected to occur until after the prospective start date for the last session. The first session for the program was canceled earlier this summer.

“We want to protect the health and safety of our staff, the public and our junior lifeguards and stop the spread of COVID-19,” Bond said.

COVID-19 cases have continued to rise in Orange County, with the Orange County Health Care Agency reporting 1,292 new cases on Thursday.

The increase has prompted hospitals in the region to begin to prepare for a surge of sick patients, according to the director of the Orange County Health Care Agency.

This brings the total number of cases in the county to 21,517, with 691 of current cases currently hospitalized and 236 of those cases in the intensive care unit. Twenty-six deaths were also reported Thursday, with deaths totaling 402 to date, 203 of those deaths are of skilled nursing facility residents and 14 are assisted living facility residents.

A total of 3,514 tests were reported in Thursday’s county numbers.

A guard watches a busy scene at Main Beach.
A lifeguard watches a busy scene at Main Beach in Laguna Beach on Thursday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Bond said that the city has already begun the process to refund people that have paid for the session.

But, for Lars and his mother, the disappointment is palpable.

“It’s a rite of passage almost,” Dawn Knepper said. “You learn all the local beaches. They really make an effort to take you to different spots and teach you different hazards at different locations, and so as they get to be older like my daughter’s age and when they’re wandering around town, you don’t really have to worry about it.”

Lars said he was really looking forward to the junior lifeguard program this year, adding that he was intimidated when he first started when he was 8, but that he really came to like the program last year when he started in a higher level.

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District and Huntington Beach Union High School District have each suspended summer football programs indefinitely.

By the end of that summer, he was in Group A, which is the 12- to 15-year-old group, and won fifth in the “Ironchild” competition, Lars said proudly.

"[The lifeguards] make you feel more comfortable about it because … there’s always lifeguards out there and that you ever think that you’re in trouble, the lifeguards will help you,” Lars said. “Also, it helps you learn hand signals to show if you need help or if you’re fine.”

“I don’t know. I just like swimming and the runs, you get a workout and the [Ironchild] competition,” Lars said.

A lifeguard mans a tower at Thalia Street in Laguna Beach on Thursday.
A lifeguard mans a tower at Thalia Street Beach in Laguna Beach.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Rania Sarkis, a mother of two children who’ve been participating in the junior lifeguards program since they were old enough to, said the cancelation wasn’t unexpected, but she was disappointed because neighboring cities, such as Newport Beach, continued their programs with modifications.

“If I could drive to Newport Beach every day and I could take my son and daughter to their junior lifeguard program, I would,” Sarkis said.

“With everything else going on, it would have been nice to have some normalcy,” Sarkis said. “Everything else’s been taken away. I understand the circumstances we’re in, but at the same time, these are outdoor activities.”

Public health experts say wearing a mask can prevent the spread of COVID-19, but in Orange County many are still skeptical.

Sarkis said she felt that the children participating were old enough to respect social distancing rules and said that she felt the city should have considered modifying the program and should have included residents in the discussion.

“It’s a staple of what our children do in the summer. When they’re old enough, they take the test,” Sarkis said. “It’s a rite of passage. They move up from the different age groups and they get to experience field trips and ... it’s a great experience. We need that ocean safety. Our children need it. They go to the beach all the time. We’re not always with them.”

“It’s really unfortunate,” Sarkis said. “That’s my feeling. [Junior Lifeguards] really was part of their summer experience.”

Here are the latest cumulative case counts and deaths for select cities in Orange County:

  • Santa Ana: 4,102 cases; 114 deaths
  • Anaheim: 3,829 cases; 94 deaths
  • Huntington Beach: 1,063 cases; 41 deaths
  • Irvine: 694 cases; five deaths
  • Costa Mesa: 648 cases; three deaths
  • Newport Beach: 531 cases; three deaths
  • Fountain Valley: 201 cases; six deaths
  • Laguna Beach: 86 cases; fewer than five deaths

Updated figures are posted daily at For information on getting tested, visit

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