Lakefront Trail, beaches and parks; ‘606’ trail, downtown Riverwalk closed, violators face arrest

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

Ald. Michele Smith said the “entire lakefront, including all of the parks along the lakefront are being closed.” Other City Hall sources said the mayor’s order also applies to the wildly-popular 606 Trail as well as the downtown Riverwalk.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is making good on her extraordinary threat to shut down the lakefront and all of 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.

The unprecedented decision to shut down Chicago’s most popular gathering places took effect at 8 a.m. Thursday, according to emails from a number of aldermen to 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. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

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.

Downtown Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) applauded what he called the mayor’s “difficult, but necessary” decision. 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 that 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 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 said he 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.

The mayor’s office said it was “aware” of the aldermanic email, but would not comment on it until Lightfoot’s 1 p.m. news conference at City Hall.

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

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

“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.”

Smith said she has no idea how long the unprecedented closing will last. How does she explain the open-ended closing to lakefront constituents growing stir-crazy after less than a week cooped up in their homes?

“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,” Smith said.

“We have seen too many people endangering themselves, probably unknowingly or disbelievingly, that, if they are with people that they know, how can they really get sick?”

Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, said she is “comfortable with some closures” along the lakefront. But she would prefer to see “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.”

On Wednesday, Lightfoot instructed Chicago police officers 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 and the warm weather that is luring stir-crazy Chicagoans outside even though they’re supposed to be staying at home.

“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.

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. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

“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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