Lynn Burkhead — This 4th of July demands more attention to safety measures

Staff Writer
Herald Democrat
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this Fourth of July holiday weekend probably isn't the time to try and recreate this 2003 photo on the front page of the Herald Democrat. Limiting group sizes and maintaining a social distance of at least six feet are among the health guidelines recommended by state authorities this year.

As the Fourth of July arrives tomorrow, this is liable to be a big weekend of aquatic activity on Lake Texoma. You know the drill — boating, fishing, water skiing, jet skis, beach gatherings, cookouts, and fireworks both tonight and tomorrow.

Normally, this space sees some sort of boating safety story when Independence Day rolls around once again, and this year is no exception.

But in this crazy year of 2020, the celebration of Uncle Sam’s 244th birthday requires a little more this year than talking about boating and water safety issues.

In the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s also the added measure of health guidelines to ensure that we not only stay safe, but we don’t get sick either.

With the recent spike of case numbers in Texas — and with the Independence Day holiday looming — that’s why the front page of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s website (www.tpwd.texas.gov ) contains a section devoted to avoiding the potentially deadly coronavirus.

In short, TPWD advises that those who get out and about this holiday weekend to wear a mask; practice social distancing skills of six feet or more; limit group sizes to 10 household members; avoid commonly touched surfaces; and wash hands or use hand sanitizer often.

In other words, this is probably not the year to try and recreate a famous front page photo that appeared in the Herald Democrat years ago, one where dozens and dozens of boats were in close proximity to each other out on the mid-lake islands on the border reservoir straddling the Red River.

A TPWD link to the Texas Department of Health Services website furthers those ideas even more. The TDHS site (dshs.texas.gov/coronavirus/#prevent) also adds a few more guidelines including covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue (then throwing that away), avoiding close contact with people who are sick, and skipping big gatherings.

But avoiding COVID-19 is only one part of staying safe this particular Fourth of July. Another way that outdoors enthusiasts need to stay safe is avoiding problems with the summertime heat that has been building across Texas.

Extreme heat is a staple every summer season between the Red River and the Rio Grande, and this year is no exception with Heat Advisories in place. While many ignore those advisories, they carry a real health threat for some as evidenced by the 129 heat-related illnesses in humans and pets that were reported last summer at 48 Texas State Parks.

To enjoy the outdoors safely during a period of high heat, TPWD offers six “heat hacks” that include hydrating properly by drinking at least 16 ounces of water every hour in the heat; applying generous amounts of sunscreen or sunblock before heading outdoors and every couple of hours afterwards when in or around water; and wearing light and loose fitting clothes that are breathable and protect from the sun — don’t forget the hat, shoes, and a bandana!

Also remember to snack on foods that replace salt lost from sweating, foods that can include things like jerky, granola, trail mix, tuna, and dried fruit; going on outdoor adventures with others during hot weather (for safety reasons, so that the buddy system will work properly and heat exhaustion and heat stroke symptoms can be observed and treated promptly); and planning ahead to know where and when to enjoy the outdoors without undue exposure to the heat or non-shaded areas.

Finally, there’s the usual boating safety component to this year’s story as TPWD reminds that 2020 has already seen a 30 percent increase in drownings from a year ago.

To help ensure that boating safety is a priority this holiday weekend, TPWD says in a news release that state game wardens will have a noticeable presence over the Fourth of July.

“Texas Game Wardens will be out in full force this weekend to ensure the public enjoys their time on the water responsibly, but we need everyone to make sure they are taking safety seriously, too,” said Cody Jones, TPWD assistant commander for marine enforcement, in the release.

“Most of the tragic deaths and serious injuries that occurred in Texas waters last year could have been prevented by following a few simple and important steps.”

According to TPWD, those include wearing a life jacket; learning and knowing how to swim; closely supervising children around boats and the water; using a kill switch when operating a boat or personal watercraft; never driving a boat while under the influence of alcohol; and taking a boater education class.

In terms of boating and using alcohol, I usually include the advice here that I got from my late friend Raymond Copley. Known as Honey to family and friends, Raymond told me one summer years ago that “He who goes forth on the Fourth with a fifth, often doesn’t come forth on the Fifth.”

TPWD agrees and will be paying especially close attention this weekend to those who insist on operating a boat and consuming alcohol at the same time.

The agency says that its state game wardens and thousands of other law enforcement officers will be looking for those violating boating under the influence laws this weekend. That effort is a part of “Operation Dry Water,” a nationally coordinated enforcement effort to deter boaters from operating boats while under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

“Boating under the influence is just as deadly as drinking and driving,” said Jones, in the news release. “Every year we see dozens of boating accidents and tragedies on Texas waters that could have been avoided if the operator had refrained from drinking.

Another law that is often violated as summer boating takes place is not having a life jacket available for each boat or paddle craft occupant, which is required by state law. Children under the age of 13 are also required to wear one while the boat or paddle craft is underway or drifting.

A final piece of advice has to do with the weather this holiday weekend. As this was being written on Thursday, the National Weather Service forecast made mention of a 20-percent chance of storms on the Fourth and a 30-percent chance the following day.

That means you’ll need to watch the sky and head for safety if any thunderstorms begin boiling up in the afternoon heat. Why? To start with, you don’t want to be struck by lightning, one of the leading killers of those who venture outdoors each year.

And on vast Lake Texoma — an inland sea as my late guide friend John Hahn used to say about the 89,000-acre reservoir — you don’t want to be caught out on the lake when a strong storm rolls through. Think the Gulf of Mexico during a hurricane and you’ll get the picture.

Enjoy your Fourth of July holiday weekend, especially if your plans take you to Lake Texoma. Hopefully, it will be a weekend of fun, good eating, great memories and a little safety that will go a long way in a year that many would just as soon forget.