BOSTON (State House News Service) — Five days after banning open water swimming at Concord's Walden Pond as part of a package of changes in response to a spate of drownings around Massachusetts, the Baker administration plans to begin allowing the practice again, according to an official.
An administration official told the News Service that the Department of Conservation and Recreation intends to issue new guidance Wednesday evening that will once again permit swimmers to navigate waters beyond those marked by ropes and buoys.
The update will include several modifications aimed at increasing safety for swimmers, lifeguards and visitors, though the exact changes were still unclear Wednesday afternoon.
On Friday, DCR banned open water swimming at Walden Pond "indefinitely" after a flurry of drownings across the state. The move drew criticism from the Massachusetts Open Water Swimming Association, whose members said restricting access would negatively impact their health while doing little to improve public safety.
Fifty state lawmakers, representing one quarter of the members in the 200-seat Legislature, signed a letter Wednesday criticizing the Baker administration's decision to prohibit open water swimming at Walden Pond, calling it a "wrong and unfair" response to the drowning deaths.
In a letter to Department of Conservation and Recreation Commissioner Jim Montgomery, the representatives and senators urged officials to lift the ban "very soon" and direct focus toward education and safety precautions.
"Walden Pond is one of the most cherished open water swimming locations in the entire state. It is also used for training by long distance swimmers, many of whom may now be forced to swim in the ocean or other less safe bodies of water," the bipartisan group wrote in their letter, which Sen. Michael Barrett of Lexington tweeted. "We have already heard from hundreds of our constituents who have shared with us how important swimming at Walden Pond is to their physical and mental health."
Lawmakers said many swimmers cannot afford swimming club or lap pool memberships as an alternative to outdoor, open-body options.
DCR's ban on open-water swimming at Walden Pond took effect Friday, one day after Gov. Charlie Baker unveiled legislation that would increase the maximum fine for swimming outside designated areas at state parks and beaches from $200 to $500.
Jabbing at what they called "draconian fines," lawmakers in their letter said the administration should instead expand access to swimming classes, hire additional lifeguards and boost their pay, launch a water safety public awareness campaign, and add signage in multiple languages. The administration has already implemented several of those changes.
The Massachusetts Open Water Swimming Association also warned that the increase in fines would disproportionately impact people of color, people with disabilities and those from less affluent backgrounds.
"I just feel that the knee-jerk reaction of shutting down Massachusetts waterways to open water swimming is not going to prevent these tragedies," MOWSA President Greg O'Connor said in a statement. "A better approach would be to offer state-funded programs to teach everyone how to swim and also educate everyone on safety in, on, and around water."
The administration has also taken several other steps in addition to temporarily banning open water swimming at Walden Pond and seeking higher fines.
DCR posted dozens of new signs in multiple languages encouraging safe swimming at parks and beaches it oversees, according to the administration. It also boosted hourly pay for lifeguards and increased outreach to encourage participation in its free swimming lessons.
Massachusetts Medical Society President Carole Allen to stress Wednesday that swimmers "exercise caution and be hyper-vigilant about safety."
"Parents and guardians should never leave children unsupervised in any depth of water, even if the child is a competent swimmer or there is a lifeguard on duty," Allen, a pediatrician, said in a statement. "When monitoring children in the water, it is imperative that the adult supervisor be attentive. It is also strongly encouraged to designate one specific person to watch swimmers for a specified period. That person should focus 100 percent of their attention on that responsibility. Do not leave the area or get distracted by things like phones or books."
"Drownings can occur in an instant, and often the victim struggles silently, and does not scream, yell or otherwise signal distress," Allen added.
Written by Chris Lisinski, SHNS