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Jones Beach ambassadors act as safety envoys during coronavirus pandemic

Newsday's Steve Langford on Thursday met with workers

Newsday's Steve Langford on Thursday met with workers called social distancing ambassadors at Jones Beach State Park. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin, Howard Schnapp; File footage

To the simple and incomparable pleasures of Jones Beach State Park that everyone enjoys, add another role for the workers who believe in serving visitors and keeping them safe: persuading them to follow antivirus protections.

“It’s good to know I’m helping people … stopping the spread,” said Anthony Munro, 16, of Seaford, one of almost three dozen social distance ambassadors hired this summer to help ensure the six-mile-long oceanfront park just 27 miles from Manhattan does not become a hot spot, though it reliably draws thousands of parkgoers every day.

“Every once in a while there is somebody who is a little resistant to the rules we have in place,” he said. “You try to be nice to everybody because everybody wants to stay safe.”

Summing up, he added: “It’s rewarding.”

Despite the summer heat, Munro and a co-worker and friend, Jack Reiser, also 16 and from Seaford, wore not only masks and gloves but the required safety-first work boots.

The pair wielded spray bottles of disinfectant, as their responsibilities include cleansing everything from hand rails to the on-off button on the children's splash pad that gets their attention about every quarter hour. And there is the occasional trash assignment, and on rainy days, reorganizing the work room.

Asked to identify his favorite aspect of the job, Reiser said it was helping to safeguard the community. 

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"I just really don’t want Covid to spike back up again like it did in February and March.”

And he also volunteered another imperative for his generation: ”I want to go back to school.” Reiser and his co-worker, charged with asking people to wear at least some kind of face covering and stay at least 6 feet apart — with 10 feet between towels and blankets — will start this school year as juniors.

Jeffrey Mason, park director, who has overseen the requirements needed to welcome beachgoers while battling the coronavirus, outlined the way the ambassadors — and all park workers — are asked to approach people who may prefer the age-old pleasures of shedding — not adding — layers of clothing when they hit the beach.

One of the job’s worst aspects might be having to utter the same social distancing requests over and over, though parkgoers prefer being spoken to as individuals instead of hearing recordings, Mason said: “People want it to be more personable.” And as a recent visit showed, signs by themselves are not enough.

One primary qualification for these new anti-COVID-19 envoys is social skills. While researchers may have yet to study whether there is a link between a loving nature and that attribute, Mason finds many workers start out possessing both qualifications.

Their training starts with customer service and safety.

“You just try to stay calm and explain the current procedures in this pandemic,” Mason said. “You don’t need to be wordy; just give them the facts.”

Since spring, when masks were unfamiliar to many unless they worked in health care, beachgoers now appear more inclined to wear them, although a fair number still flout that mandate.

“We just try to tell them, ‘I’m doing my job,' " said Janus Childress, 42, of Freeport, a beach foreman who manages about 80 employees, whose work has almost doubled in some instances due to the pandemic.

“You don’t want to make it any worse because some of these people can be very rude.” 

If tensions spike, workers are instructed to immediately contact supervisors and, potentially, park police.

Happily, “You don’t really get a whole lot of problems; they tend to listen,” Mason said.

Part of the park’s strategy is foreseeing possible trouble spots. Snow fences were put up on the beach to help separate people, and the yard-wide, lengthy rubber mats that usually lead from the boardwalk down to the ocean have all been removed except at one field.

Originally designed for the disabled, those mats smooth the way for beachgoers carrying heavy coolers, umbrellas and the like. Yet there is no way to keep people walking to and from the ocean sufficiently separated on them, Mason explained.

“You don’t want to have that conversation; how do you tell people not to use it if they are not disabled?”

Don’t be surprised to see some of the same faces next summer, pandemic or not. Many school-age workers come back for four to five summers in a row, Mason said. Reiser may be one. When it comes to Jones Beach, “There really isn’t anything like it.”

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