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Alarming spike in Great Lakes drownings tied to COVID-19, study finds

Keith Matheny, Detroit Free Press on

Published in News & Features

"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. In 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.


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