Lightfoot threatens to shut down parks, lakefront, Riverwalk after throngs head outside

People hit the lakefront on Wednesday as temperatures climbed into the 50s. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The mayor told CPD to shut down large gatherings and threatened to use “every lever at my disposal” after seeing stir-crazy Chicagoans lured outdoors by warmer weather.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday made an extraordinary threat — to shut down Chicago parks, Millennium Park, the downtown Riverwalk and the entire lakefront — if residents and visitors continue to thumb their noses at the statewide stay-at-home order aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

Lightfoot instructed Chicago Police officers to break up 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 she saw along the lakefront, the crowds at playgrounds and basketball courts and the warm weather luring stir-crazy Chicagoans outside even though they’re supposed to be staying 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.

“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.”

Lightfoot said she not only has directed Chicago Police officers to shut down large gatherings, but also is prepared to go even further.

“If we have to … we will be forced to shut down parks and the entire lakefront,” the mayor said.

She added: “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, 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.”

But later Wednesday, shortly before 6 p.m., police began clearing people from beaches and the Lakefront Trail, beginning at Oak Street and heading north.

Hundreds of people were out enjoying warm weather on the Lakefront Trail near North Avenue Beach, Wednesday afternoon, March 25, 2020.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 North Avenue Beach on Wednesday afternoon.

Interim Police Supt. Charlie Beck said the “educational phase” of the governor’s stay-at-home order is over. The warning and compliance phase has begun.

That means you’ll get one warning, followed by misdemeanor citations that carry a $500 fine and “if you continue to violate it, you will be subject to physical arrest.”

He said he held a meeting with his “chiefs and deputy chiefs” Wednesday to discuss the situation and told them “if people do not heed the warning of our police department to not congregate, then we’re gonna start issuing citations — not because we want to, but because we must.”

He urged Chicagoans not to let it get to that point.

“If we do not do this, Chicago is at risk. Your families are at risk. The seniors in this city are at risk. This is something that your police department has to do. So, beginning today, one warning. After that, you will be cited. Please do not make us do that.”

When the governor’s stay-at-home order was issued Friday, Lightfoot said all Chicago Park District field houses and 580 playgrounds would be closed to the public, but the green space in the parks would remain open.

Some people apparently took that as license to do what they’ve always done: flock to the lakefront for a long run or bike ride when the sun comes out and temperature rises, as it did Wednesday. Or gather at a local park for a game of pickup basketball or soccer.

Hundreds enjoying warm weather on the Lakefront Trail near Oak Street Beach, Wednesday afternoon, March 25, 2020.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 on Wednesday.

Lightfoot said she knows that’s true because she saw it with her own eyes shortly before Wednesday’s news conference; it forced her to make a threat she never wanted to make.

“I was driving along Lake Shore Drive last night. I looked at the cameras along the lakeshore today. And what we’re seeing is packs of people along the lakeshore.”

The mayor acknowledged the lakefront is a magnet for Chicagoans, particularly those cooped up in their homes with young kids. It’s one of the city’s “greatest assets,” she said.

“But when we have masses of people out there as I just saw … it’s a problem. We know what happens when we don’t social distance. This illness rate goes through the roof. The strain on the hospitals is enormous. And the death rate starts to escalate.”

For now at least, Park District Supt. Mike Kelly said “green space” in the parks would remain open.

But, he said: “If you’re walking or you’re running along the lakefront trail or in the neighborhood park, keep your distance. Six feet or more. If someone’s passing by, step off to the side. Let them through. This is not a time for contact sports. No soccer. No basketball games. If you have to play basketball, play by yourself with your own ball.”

Contributing: Luke Wilusz

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