‘Dear God, stay home’ Lightfoot says after closing Lakefront Trail, 606

Chicago police officers patrol the Lakefront Trail near North Avenue Beach on Thursday morning as the city closes the area to pedestrians amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

“Stay home. Save lives,” the mayor demanded at an afternoon news conference. “Folks, we can’t mess around with this one second longer.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is making good on her extraordinary threat to shut down the lakefront and all its parks and beaches — along with the downtown Riverwalk and the 606 Trail — to prevent Chicagoans from defying a statewide stay-at-home order aimed at slowing community spread of the coronavirus.

Lightfoot said she was forced to act because asking people to voluntarily stay home and avoid groups simply was not working.

“Folks, we can’t mess around with this one second longer,” Lightfoot said Thursday.

“Over the past few days, we have seen crowds congregating together” particularly along the lake and the 606 Trail,” Lightfoot said at a news conference downtown, where she was joined by a group of suburban mayors.

“Your conduct is posing a direct threat to our public health,” and will harm efforts to slow the disease “and could lead to more deaths,” she said.

“If you don’t stay home . . . we will be headed for a situation like what we are seeing play out in New York,” Lightfoot added. “We could be expecting upwards of 40,000 hospitalizations in the coming weeks,” she said. “That number would break the back of our health care system.”

The unprecedented decision to close Chicago’s most popular gathering places took effect at 8 a.m. Thursday, and was first announced in emails several aldermen sent their constituents.

“The Lakefront Trail, park, and beaches from Ardmore south are closed to public access. This includes parkland east of Marine Drive, as well as Berger Park,” Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) wrote.

“Park security and the Chicago Police Department will be enforcing this directive. Please do not force our local police officers have to enforce this. The police efforts are needed elsewhere in this crisis.”

Hundreds enjoyed warm weather on the Lakefront Trail near Oak Street Beach Wednesday afternoon, but those crowds prompted a total shutdown on Thursday.Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Hundreds enjoyed warm weather on the Lakefront Trail near Oak Street Beach Wednesday afternoon, but those crowds prompted a total shutdown on Thursday.

Parks Supt. Michael Kelly also appeared at the news conference. While declaring himself “a parks guy” who knows the shutdown is a difficult decision, he added that “what we saw yesterday” along the lake was unacceptable.

“That is a very real and direct threat” to the health of city residents, Kelly said.

Chicago Police Supt. Charlie Beck said the activities he saw people engaging in Wednesday along the lake “were things I love to do” — but in this case, those actions put lives at risk.

“The Chicago Police Department will be enforcing the public health orders throughout the city” and around the clock,” Beck said. “This is a 24/7 legal order to comply.”

Other aldermen whose wards are impacted by the decision said the mayor’s order also applies to the downtown Riverwalk and the wildly popular 606 Trail. The 606 is narrow, making it virtually impossible to remain the recommended six feet apart. The Riverwalk also has numerous “pinch points,” aldermen said.

The orders were signed by Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago’s public health commissioner, who said she shared the mayor’s concern that the order to stay home “was not being taken seriously enough.”

Changes made in “these next few weeks are crucial. They will shape the COVID trajectory in Chicago,” Arwady said, pointing to how different areas of Italy had handled the pandemic.

A region with more aggressive action “has seen a much slower surge” in coronavirus cases than another which took less aggressive action, Arwady said.

“This is evidence those sacrifices are not for nothing.”

Downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) applauded the mayor’s “difficult, but necessary” decision, saying it was based on “reports from the field” over the last 48 hours.

“It wasn’t just the sheer volume of people congregating together, but reports from Chicago police officers regarding the complete lack of cooperation when they would tell people, ‘You need to go home.’ People just weren’t taking it seriously. They weren’t leaving the park. Or if they were, they would leave the park for two minutes. So the police moved along and they would come back,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins said there is “no doubt that, in the past 48 hours, people got infected in the parks and on the lakefront trail.” He noted people running, jogging, biking, playing basketball and soccer perspire more, breathe heavier and infect each other when they come in contact or get too close.

“This really is a matter of life and death. That’s not an exaggeration. To the extent that we can engage in social isolation now, it’s going to cut down on the number of peak infections that have the potential to overwhelm our health care system. This is the moment we needed the most cooperation and we just weren’t getting it,” the alderman said

In a text message to the Sun-Times, Osterman said he strongly supports the mayor’s order and expects it to continue “until further notice.”

“The residents of my lakefront community will adjust to this change as they have been adjusting to other changes to their daily lives,” Osterman wrote.

Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) confirmed the “entire lakefront, including all of the parks along the lakefront are being closed,” adding that “everything” includes the beaches.

“It’s really unfortunate that it needs to be done. But, every person … inadvertently having contact with someone could be another person catching the disease,” Smith said.

“People just have to Google what’s happening in New York or in other places to know that this is happening to us and could be happening even worse. The only way to [control it] is to stay home, for like the next two weeks.”

A man ignores a “trail closed” sign on the Lakefront Trail near Oak Street Beach as the city closes the area to pedestrians amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic, Thursday morning, March 26, 2020.Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
A man ignores a “trail closed” sign on the Lakefront Trail near Oak Street Beach Thursday morning. To try to limit the spread of the coronavirus, the city has closed that trail as well as all lakefront parks and beaches, the 606 trail and the downtown Riverwalk to prevent large groups of people from gathering.

Smith doesn’t know how long the unprecedented closing will last. As for explaining the indefinite nature of that action to stir-crazy constituents, she said: “There are alternative forms of exercise that people are well aware of. That’s what people need to do. If you need to get some air, get some air. You cannot congregate.”

Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, said she is “comfortable with some closures” along the lakefront, but would prefer “measures that address trouble spots,” instead of a blanket closure.

“I don’t know if the South Side lakefront was as busy as the North Side lakefront” on Wednesday, Irizarry said.

Although closing the entire lakefront is unprecedented, Irizarry is not accusing the mayor of going too far.

“I do think we need places to walk and run and be healthy. But if we can’t use that space in a healthy way, we do need to make sure people are not congregating,” she said.

“I would say that Friends of the Parks is thankful for a selective approach to closures that does still leave other parks and green spaces open for people.”

Ald. Sophia King (4th), whose ward includes the south lakefront, said the mayor’s order was necessary.

“People are not acting responsibly. … Because individual irresponsibility affects the whole, we have to act aggressively to mitigate the risk for everyone,” King wrote in a text message.

“We are on a very concerning trajectory. If it continues to increase at this rate, hospitals will be overwhelmed. This pandemic is serious! People need to start acting like it is!”

Normally, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois would be knee-jerk opposed to the blanket closing of Chicago’s most popular gathering spots. Not this time.

“Let’s see how this is enforced. Let’s see what this looks like in a week. But if decisions are made on the basis of advice from public health officials to try to address this pandemic situation, those are things which are likely to be permissible,” said ACLU spokesman Ed Yohnka.

Despite a stay-at-home order from Gov. J.B. Pritzker, people walk, jog and enjoy the lakefront Wednesday afternoon.Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Despite a stay-at-home order from Gov. J.B. Pritzker during the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds could be seen enjoying warm weather on the Lakefront Trail near Oak Street Beach, Wednesday afternoon, March 25, 2020.

“We’re living in an unprecedented time of a pandemic. There are going to be limitations on our movements as a result of that. It’s a step that was taken that, perhaps, will make people pay attention and, maybe at the end of the day, doesn’t last or is necessary for a protracted period of time, but sends a signal about what’s important.”

The role of enforcing the mayor’s order will fall to Chicago police officers, who have their own concerns about getting too close to crowds. It also comes as inmates are released from Cook County Jail and police try not to add to the problem by making more arrests.

“The police have obviously canceled all vacation. Pre-approved leave has been canceled. People are already wracking up overtime. We’ve just suspended the VRI initiative, which is the supplemental police that kind of stand around on Michigan Avenue. They’ve been re-deployed into patrol,” Hopkins said.

“It’s really all-hands-on-deck from a law enforcement perspective. We’re taxing law enforcement capacity at a rate that we’ve never seen. But there’s no alternative. Arrests are possible if people do not comply with the verbal warning and the [$500] citation. I hope it doesn’t resort to that.”

Despite a stay-at-home order from Gov. J.B. Pritzker during the coronavirus pandemic, people walk and exercise on The 606 trail near Artesian Avenue, Thursday morning, March 26, 2020. Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Despite a stay-at-home order from Gov. J.B. Pritzker during the coronavirus pandemic, people walk and exercise on The 606 trail near Artesian Avenue, Thursday morning, March 26, 2020.

On Wednesday, Lightfoot had instructed police to shut down large gatherings and threatened to use what she called “every lever at my disposal” to compel compliance.

She was moved to action by the large gatherings that she saw along the lakefront, the crowds at Chicago playgrounds and basketball courts, lured by the warm weather.

“Way too many people gathering like it’s just another day. This is not just another day. And no day will be just another day until we are on the other side of this virus, which is weeks away,” the mayor said.

“I understand people are frustrated at being stuck in their homes and anxious to get out outside and move around. And you can do that. But, you must do it in a way that is smart, that is maintaining social distance and not congregating in other locations with lots of other people. That’s where the danger lies.”

Lightfoot warned then that, if police warnings and citations were not successful in shutting down large gatherings, she was prepared to go even further.

“If we have to — because you are not educating yourselves into compliance and if you are not abiding by these very clear, but necessary stay at home orders — we will be forced to shut down parks and the entire lakefront,” the mayor said.

“Let me be clear. That’s the last thing any of us want and that’s the last thing that I want to do as mayor. But make no mistake: If people don’t take this in a serious way in which they must, I’m not gonna hesitate to pull every lever at my disposal to force compliance if necessary. But, let’s not get to that point. We don’t need to. Stay at home. Only go out for essentials. If you want to exercise, do it in a way that you are not congregating with other people.”

A few hours later, Chicago Police officers started making good on the mayor’s threat by closing down the Lakefront Trail at North Avenue.

Contributing: Mark Brown

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