Andres Velasquez was swimming at Rockaway Beach on Friday evening, cooling off after a hot day at his dog-walking job, when he heard someone blowing a whistle.
Mr. Velasquez, 33, said he thought it was merely a signal that swimmers could remain in the water at their own risk. But a few minutes later, he heard someone yelling at him through a bullhorn to leave, and on the shore he saw a line of New York City Parks Department patrol officers waiting for him.
What followed was deeply unusual at the Rockaways, where New Yorkers come every summer to relax: Mr. Velasquez was arrested and walked off the beach in handcuffs wearing his still-wet swim trunks, as officers explained to him that swimming was not allowed after 6 p.m.
The tense encounter at Rockaway Beach came amid a persistent heat wave that has sent New Yorkers scrambling to find ways to cool down. Yet, lifeguard shortages at city pools and occasional beach closures — because of shark sightings, and in one case because of bacteria in the water — have sometimes made it harder this summer to find safe spots to go swimming.
And at a time when several young people have recently drowned along the city’s coastline, the arrest has highlighted confusion over what’s ill-advised, and what’s illegal, at New York’s beaches.
About 300 people are asked to leave the waters at Rockaway Beach every day, the parks department said. Arrests, however, are rare. Only one other arrest was made this year at the Rockaways, for driving under the influence, and there was one arrest for disorderly conduct in 2021 and another in 2019. The circumstances surrounding those arrests are unclear.
“I’m not allowed to be in nature?” Mr. Velasquez is heard asking in a video, as parks officers lead him handcuffed down the beach. An officer responds that swimming is not allowed after 6 p.m.
“This makes no sense,” Mr. Velasquez says.
During beach season this year, lifeguards are on duty from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., according to the parks department’s website, the same hours as in previous years. Swimming is prohibited outside of those hours and at sections of the beach where no lifeguard is stationed.
But a department spokeswoman later clarified that Mr. Velasquez was swimming in one of the stretches of beach designated solely for surfing and where swimming is always prohibited — as marked by signs.
Mr. Velasquez’s summons was for disorderly conduct and failure to comply with the Parks Enforcement Patrol in providing an ID, not for swimming after hours, according to the parks department.
“Unfortunately, due to noncompliance when an ID was requested, in this instance an arrest was warranted,” Crystal Howard, a department spokeswoman, said.
When asked if the parks department had increased enforcement at Rockaway in recent years, she said that it had not, outside the addition of 10 officers in 2019 when a new beach was being constructed.
Mr. Velasquez said he initially refused to provide his identification, which he said he did not have with him in the water. But he said that after several parks department employees wrestled him to the ground and handcuffed him, he asked a friend to retrieve his ID but was told it was too late.
He also said he was unaware of signs prohibiting swimming on the beach, saying he only noticed them after officers removed a covering from one. “As I was being escorted, they remove something covering the sign to point and show me it, and I had no idea that it existed, didn’t see anything anywhere,” he said.
For Janet Fash, who has worked as a chief lifeguard at Rockaway Beach for about 31 years, the arrest was unusual and “kind of outrageous,” she said.
Parks enforcement has a hard job trying to get people out of the water after hours, she said, but in her decades of experience, she has always tried to resolve situations with beachgoers without arrests.
“This is also emblematic of a more important thing, which is that we would like extended hours to swim in this weather,” Ms. Fash said. “People come home from work and go swimming in certain parts of the Rockaway.”
When she started lifeguarding 30 years ago, there were two shifts of lifeguards, Ms. Fash said: The first crew would work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., while another group was staggered from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The parks department should look for ways to extend lifeguard hours or even just have some lifeguards assist with monitoring the beaches until 8 p.m., she added.
At the far end of the subway’s A line, the Rockaways are an affordable summer getaway for many New Yorkers. But this summer, the beaches have experienced a patchwork of closures during a season of scorching temperatures and heat waves.
No one has died at city beaches during operating hours in nearly a decade, according to Ms. Howard.
But several drownings have occurred at unguarded beaches. In early June, two 13-year-old boys drowned after slipping into Jamaica Bay off a sandbar. One week later, two others died in unrelated drownings at restricted sections of Rockaway Beach.
And in 2019, seven young people, between the ages of 15 and 28, died in drownings along the 11-mile coastline of the Rockaways.
“Our beaches here, particularly in the Rockaways, they are the wildest water of all of our beaches,” said Shawn Slevin, executive director at Swim Strong Foundation, an organization that aims to reduce drownings by offering affordable swim classes. But while she said she is well aware of parks department patrols to get swimmers out of the water after hours, she had never heard of anyone being arrested.
“Not having been there to witness it with my own eyes, it sounds unusual,” she said.
Mr. Velasquez said he often swims at Coney Island in the evenings and has never had such an encounter with parks officials there. He added that he might not return to the Rockaways anytime soon.
“I feel like what happened, it’s so wrong to do to someone,” he said. “We’re just swimming at the beach, we’re swimming in a natural body of water.”