HONOLULU (KHON2) — Some Oahu beaches might not have lifeguards on duty due to a staffing shortage.

Officials said even though the shortage is not because of the COVID vaccine mandate, it still has an impact on a department that is already spread thin.

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Honolulu Ocean Safety said it will likely be closing one or two of the 41 towers on Oahu beaches per day due to the staffing shortage. Honolulu Ocean Safety Chief John Titchen said it is because of the legal mandate from 2019 that required the department to increase coverage to begin at dawn and end at dusk — which was initially from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The change added another three and a half hours each day.

“What we want to do is focus our resources on where we know we can expect to see beach activity on any given day, rather than being spread too thin,” said Titchen.

He said the coronavirus vaccine mandate, itself, is not causing the shutdown of any towers. However, because lifeguards with exemptions have to get tested regularly, they are allowed two hours from their workday to do that. So, lifeguards from other towers have to fill in for them.

“Is there an impact? Yes, how can you deny that the pandemic and required testing for the vaccination processes wouldn’t affect us? That would be disingenuous,” said Titchen.

According to the City, 80 out of the 241 workers at Ocean Safety have asked for a religious or medical exemption from the COVID vaccine, and that 33% is considerably higher than other first responders.

“At any time that you take one or two of those people away from watching the water, you’re going to have an operational impact, that’s a no-brainer,” Titchen explained.

He pointed out that even if there are no lifeguards at the beach, people should call 911 for help because there will be mobile units on all-terrain vehicles patrolling the beaches. There are also lifeguards on jet skis who are strategically placed for quick response.

“They’re able to get to 911 calls quicker. What we’d like to do is add more mobile units to add more personnel with jet skis. That’s really the best way to rescue someone in the water,” said Titchen.

Ocean Safety hired 23 more people to accommodate the long hours. Titchen said more is needed from the next recruiting class.

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