24 LBI lifeguards positive for coronavirus after attending social gatherings together

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Two dozen lifeguards on Long Beach Island are being quarantined after testing positive for the coronavirus, officials said Friday. A chair at Brick Beach was unoccupied in this file photo. (Kevin Shea/)

Officials on Long Beach Island say more than 20 lifeguards have tested positive for the coronavirus after being together at a recent event.

The lifeguards are from Harvey Cedars and Surf City, neighboring boroughs on LBI just north of the Dorland J. Henderson Memorial Bridge, which links the Ocean County mainland to the barrier island.

Mayor Jonathan Oldham of Harvey Cedars said the borough clerk had been informed of the COVID-19 cluster on Thursday by the director of the Long Beach Island Health Department, a regional health office that operates independently of the Ocean County Health Department.

Oldham said the lifeguards, including a dozen each from Harvey Cedars and Surf City, were being quarantined and would not be back on the job until authorized by doctors. Oldham said he did not know the date or location where the guards may have contracted the potentially deadly virus.

“I just heard that they were together, exactly where they were or what it was, I’m not sure, but I’m under the understanding that they were together at an event,” Oldham said in a phone interview late Friday afternoon.

LBI Health Department Director Daniel Krupinski did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday.

But Krupinski was quoted by Philadelphia public radio station WHYY on Friday as saying the island health department had received “reports of COVID-19 activity among Surf City lifeguards on Saturday, July 18 and Harvey Cedars lifeguards on Sunday, July 19,” after the guards had been together at a pair of “social gatherings” on July 12 and 14, though he did not say where.

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Surf City Borough Councilman Peter Hartney said he and other borough officials had also been alerted to the cluster. Hartney said the fact that so many lifeguards at one time had tested positive for the disease was not of particular concern. Rather, Hartney said, “My concern is just the general outbreak of the virus.”

Altough Gov. Phil Murphy said Friday that New Jersey is the only state in the nation that as seen its number of new coronavirus cases drop for a full two weeks, the outbreak remains a grave concern.

The state’s death toll climbed by 36 on Friday, to a total of 15,765, with the total number of cases rising to 178,345 since the outbreak began in March.

Shore communities that depend on their beaches to anchor the critical summer tourist season say they’ve had trouble recruiting and retaining lifeguards in recent years.

Hartney said he had no idea how the cluster would impact staffing levels or beach openings in Surf City. In Harvey Cedars, Oldham said the borough’s lifeguard captain, Randy Townsend, had assured him that “all of our beaches are fully staffed.”

But Oldham shared Hartney’s concern about the spread of the virus on the narrow barrier island, and urged people not to let their guard down.

“Keep a safe distance and wear a mask,” the mayor said.

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Steve Strunsky may be reached at sstrunsky@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @SteveStrunsky. Find NJ.com on Facebook. Have a tip? Tell us. nj.com/tips