Please, now more than ever, keep the lakefront and parks ‘forever open, clear and free’

Despite a stay-at-home order from Gov. J.B. Pritzker during the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds could be seen enjoying warm weather on along Lake Michigan near Oak Street Beach, Wednesday afternoon. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

I understand why the mayor is aggravated seeing groups gathered along the lakefront paths.  Let’s just hope that we can find a way to deal with this short of shutting down the best places most people have for letting off steam. 

Over the past two weeks of working from home, I’ve developed a routine of sorts.

As soon as I mentally clock out for the day, I change into some sweats, throw on a few extra layers and head to the park for some exercise.

I’m lucky enough to live along the lake near Montrose, so it’s just a few minutes out my door to Cricket Hill, the handy sledding hill at the entrance to Montrose Harbor and the beach.

I jog up the hill as many times as I can. Made it to 15 the other night. Then I take a solitary stroll along the beach and through the dunes before returning home. By the time I get back, I’m very mellow, especially on nights when that cold wind is whipping off the lake.

I’ve found it to be the perfect antidote to the stress and anxiety of the COVID-19 crisis.

So you can imagine my reaction to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s threat Wednesday to close the city’s parks in response to the crowds that have started to return to the lakefront in the past two days — many of them ignoring the safe social distancing practices on which our health may depend.

Oh, God. Please don’t let it come to that. Please, please, please.

Before you say anything, let me add: I get it. I get it. I get it.

There’s a lot of stupid people out there. There always are, and most of them don’t mean any harm. They just don’t seem to understand.

I understood completely Tuesday evening when two Chicago Police Department squad cars rolled through the park and broke up a large pickup soccer match.

Chicago Police patrol near North Avenue Beach as hundreds could be seen enjoying warm weather along the lakefront Wednesday afternoon.Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Chicago Police patrol near North Avenue Beach as hundreds could be seen enjoying warm weather along the lakefront Wednesday afternoon.

And I understand why the mayor is aggravated seeing groups gathered along the lakefront paths.

Let’s just hope that we can find a way to deal with this short of shutting down the best places most people have for letting off steam.

On Wednesday evening, the soccer players were back, jostling at close quarters. No telling if they were the same ones as the day before.

There was also a gaggle of serious-looking field goal kickers, of all things, practicing on the turf field and making no effort to keep a safe distance.

On Cricket Hill, I found a group of five 20-somethings seated on the grass — and shouted my questions from a distance of 10 feet to signal my concern for their personal space.

Claudia Harrison, a 25-year-old grad student, explained that four of them were roommates and therefore already exposed to each other, while they were keeping the fifth member of their party at the proper distance.

“We’re trying to be careful and protect our mental health by being outside,” said Harrison, explaining that they had driven up the lakefront from Old Town to find a less crowded spot after seeing the throngs closer to where they live.

If Lightfoot decides to close the parks, “I’d understand but it would be very sad,” Harrison said.

“There should be a way, but there’s a lot of people out here,” she said, surveying the busy scene around her.

Chicagoans enjoy the warm weather near North Avenue Beach, Wednesday afternoon.Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Chicagoans enjoy the warm weather near North Avenue Beach, Wednesday afternoon.

Jacqui Ford and Monique Vrbovsky, just returning home from walking the dogs, were already aware of the mayor’s concern.

“That’d be a bummer,” Ford said. “This is our home. This is our daily walk anyway.”

Down at the beach, there were lots of people, but most were walking alone or in small groups of two or three.

The only foursome I saw was obviously a family.

That’s pretty much what it has been like over the past two weeks when crowding really hasn’t been much of an issue, mainly because of the weather.

The cold and rain (and even snow) of a typical Chicago spring have limited the lakefront visitors at Montrose to solitary runners and bikers, dog walkers, couples and families.

It wasn’t until Tuesday that things started to get crazy again as people already stir-crazy from winter saw an opening.

As usual, it was much more crowded at the dog beach on Wednesday, now shrunk in size by the high water levels. You’ll have to excuse me for not interviewing them. No way to maintain a proper distance.

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, people walk, jog and enjoy the lakefront Wednesday afternoon.

Carlos Brito and Suzanne Beane rode their bikes to Montrose from Ukrainian Village.

Brito didn’t see much of a problem along the way.

“If people keep their distances, it should be fine,” he said.

Beane appreciated the mayor’s position.

“I understand the mayor’s need to send a clear message to stay home,” she said. “It’s a tough call.”

Agreed. I wouldn’t even mind a few well-publicized tickets being handed out to drive home the point.

But let’s try like heck to keep the parks open.

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