Broken Clouds 56° Good Afternoon
Broken Clouds 56° Good Afternoon
Long IslandColumnistsEllis Henican

If swimmers take risks, whose fault is it?

Lifeguards search the waters at Cupsogue Beach in

Lifeguards search the waters at Cupsogue Beach in East Moriches, where Deng Zheng, 26, of Brooklyn, drowned and his friend, Xiangyong Chen, 31, was missing. (June 6, 2010)

Read more about the Cupsogue Beach incident. Photo Credit: James Carbone

It's the old nanny-state question, dragged onto the beach this time.

How far should government go in protecting us from ourselves?

The official in the hot seat this time is Charles Theofan of Long Beach, a city manager with a thorny decision to make: Should people be allowed to swim in the ocean when the lifeguards aren't in their chairs?

A local ordinance says no. But it's been ignored for years. Local people and visitors have been swimming and taking their chances. And most of them - most - have gotten safely back to the shore.

But terrible stories have a way of focusing minds, sometimes even changing them.

On Tuesday, a 12-year-old girl from Harlem drowned at Long Beach, nearly a week before the weekday lifeguard season began. Immediately the pressure mounted and soon was crashing down on Theofan's head. Soon enough, he ordered the old law be enforced. But by Thursday, it was laissez-faire swimming again.

And wouldn't you know it: On Friday, three people had to be rescued from the surf. Luckily, none drowned.

How much of a nanny is Long Beach? The city manager's explanations flailed like a drowning man.

"Here you had perfectly calm waters, like glass," he said. And when police tried to stop people from going into the water, he said, swimmers became "belligerent."

"What about the residents of the city who very responsibly have known how and when to go in the water - at their own risk?" he wanted to know. And the argument was rolling again.


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Most of Long Island's lifeguards were in their chairs Saturday, and not a minute too soon. Isn't that the real take-away of the uproar over the drowning and the near-drownings in Long Beach? Long Island has some of the most experienced and most professional lifeguard crews anywhere, men and women who have patrolled the same beaches for decades, rescuing the children of children they've rescued in summers past. Let the politicians debate what should happen in the time that lifeguards aren't on duty. We'll be grateful for the times they are.

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