DETROIT — An alarming spike in the number of drownings across several of the Great Lakes last year may have been linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, a new research study finds.
The drownings, particularly on Lakes Michigan, Ontario and Huron, appeared to correlate to times when government restrictions on movement were relaxed amid the pandemic. As community swimming pools, water parks and other options for cooling off in the summer remained closed, more people apparently chose to visit local beaches on the Great Lakes. At many of those beaches, COVID-19 contributed to local governments not providing lifeguards, swimming area markings or flag warnings for dangerous wave days.
This year, Holland State Park (in Ottawa County, Mich.) has seen three deaths, including Eliza Trainer, 16, of Flint, who drowned after she and her friend were swept off the pier in January; Iain Rowe, 6, of Ferrysburg, who drowned after water conditions worsened on June 6; and Christian Ngabo, 17, of Grand Rapids, who drowned the same day and during the same conditions as Rowe.
“This means that a greater proportion of the beach users may not have had experience swimming in wave-dominated environments and may have overestimated their ability to swim safely,” University of Windsor researchers Chris Houser and Brent Vlodarchyk found in their study, published in the new issue of the scientific journal Ocean & Coastal Management.
The results were deadly, particularly on three of the Great Lakes. Houser and Vlodarchyk compiled their 2020 drowning figures from May 1 to the end of September, and included only drownings related to waves and currents, not in boating or surfing accidents, for example.
On Lake Michigan, there were 37 drowning deaths in that 2020 period, 11 higher than the annual average from 2010 to 2019.
On Lake Ontario, there were 16 drownings, about 10 above historic annual trends.
On Lake Huron, there were eight drownings, about three above annual average.
Lakes Erie and Superior saw drowning deaths at about their historical averages, or even slightly lower. Houser speculated that could be because of relatively fewer Great Lakes beaches near large population centers on those lakes.
Drownings on Lake Michigan were below its historical average while Michigan, Illinois and Indiana were under stay-at-home orders or similar restrictions because of COVID-19 beginning in March, but began to increase in June, as Michigan moved into more relaxed restrictions, and as its stay-at-home order expired on June 19. It was at about the same time that restrictions were reduced in Indiana and Illinois.
“With each state ‘reopened,’ the number of drownings on Lake Michigan increased rapidly and at a rate far greater than the historical average,” the study states.
It’s difficult to ascertain firm numbers of beachgoers, but the study notes anecdotal evidence of a surge in beach visits as COVID-19-related restrictions loosened.
In late March, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources closed Tippy Dam Recreational Area in Manistee County, and threatened to close other state parks and beaches “due to a surge in visitors at state parks over the last two weeks ... many instances of improper social distancing and visitors traveling long distances to visit these outdoor spaces.”
According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, there have been over 900 drownings in the Great Lakes since 2010. Since 2020 alone, there have already been 60 drownings — 34 of which took place in Lake Michigan and several of which took place at Holland State Park.
A National Geographic feature on Indiana Dunes National Park on southern Lake Michigan last July noted, “largely thanks to COVID-19, every day at Indiana Dunes National Park is like the Fourth of July. ... Visitors are flocking to the dunes in record numbers to combat cabin fever, despite summer’s aching heat and high humidity. Even midweek, parking lots buzz by 10 a.m.”
The University of Windsor study noted that on Lake Ontario, drownings were concentrated to beaches nearest the city of Toronto earlier in the summer, then expanded to popular destination beaches farther north in the province by August, when COVID-19 restrictions allowed for increased mobility.
“Normally, in the summer, (Canadians) would have traveled internationally, “ Houser said. “They would have traveled to the U.S. or to a cottage in northern Ontario. But with the lockdowns, they couldn’t. A lot of places were shut down.
“It was stir-crazy — you had to get out. Their local Toronto beach, it was quick, it was easy. Beaches close to Chicago, to Toronto, really spiked in the number of drowning events.”
Other, perhaps telltale statistics: The numbers of drowning victims older than 50 or younger than 10 fell significantly last year; while almost 45% of all 2020 drownings on the Great Lakes involved people ages 10 to 20 — that’s compared with just 25% of drownings involving that age group from between 2010 and 2019. And almost 40% of the drownings last year occurred on Saturdays, compared with only 15% of drownings occurring on that day in the non-COVID-19 decade prior.
It’s another indicator that beachgoers were making local, weekend day trips, Houser said — in more typical years, drownings are spread over more days of the week, as they occur on vacations and camping trips.
“Let’s say you’ve got somebody from the local city who decides to beat the heat at the nearby Great Lakes beach because the local pool or water park is closed due to COVID,” he said. “They’re not used to that beach — they don’t know what a red flag means in terms of a hazard. If there are other people already in the water, they are going to follow the guide of the people, not the flag.
“It was particularly young males who were at greatest risk. If you’ve got a bunch of young males who are escaping self-isolation, they are more prone to risk-taking, more prone to getting into the water and riskier behavior.”
About 10 more young males drowned last year than expected from annual averages from the decade prior.
Though red-flag warnings existed for dangerous water conditions on Lake Michigan last June 6, no flag warnings were posted at the beach at Holland State Park. Christian Ngabo and Iain Rowe drowned in separate incidents that day.
Record-high water levels also meant shrunken beaches, Houser said.
“You start to spread people out,” he said. “Even if you had a beach that had lifeguards at it, you now have people spread over a much greater distance, with less chance of an intervention.”
Zeeland resident Greg Field Jr. is a water safety advocate and board member with the Homewood, Ill.-based Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, a nonprofit organization that tracks and tries to eradicate Great Lakes drownings through training, public awareness and preparedness.
Field said he has yet to see the University of Windsor research.
“It’s an interesting line of thought. ... Conceptually, it makes sense to me,” he said.
Field is a transplant to Michigan from Florida’s Atlantic Coast.
“I grew up in a place where people think, ‘If I’m in trouble in the water, there’s a lifeguard here to protect me,’ “ he said. “In Michigan, we just don’t have that culture, generally. It’s like you’re in the third world of water safety, right here in the U.S.”
Statistics show consistently that nationwide, most drowning deaths occur outside of the supervision of a lifeguard, Field said. But in Michigan, he said, “we just don’t have” lifeguards.
Field had particular ire for concepts such as red-flag warning days, when wave conditions are declared dangerous. Earlier studies show many young males seek out such water conditions because the powerful waves are fun for body-surfing and jumping off of piers, he said.
“If we’re going to be a state that relies on flags to protect people, we should ticket people when they go out into the water when it’s a red flag, and actually close the beach,” he said.
Michigan has no specific provisions for beaches or state park and recreational facilities in its current COVID-19 related restrictions. Mask-wearing and social distancing of at least 6 feet remain requirements for outdoor as well as indoor activities. Mask-wearing is not required while swimming.
Houser said he hopes his and Vlodarchyk’s research reminds people that “the beach, as much as it is an important means by which you can get out of the house to escape the restrictions of the pandemic, can still be a dangerous situation. You need to understand the beach, follow the flags, the warnings.”
The report is also a reminder to policy makers, he said.
“When we go into a public health issue like COVID, it diverts a lot of attention and resources, but it exposes other public health issues,” he said.