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.
Dear God, stay home. Save lives, Lightfoot said at a Thursday afternoon news conference. Folks, we cant mess around with this one second longer.
Over the past few days, we have seen crowds congregating, particularly along the lake and the 606 Trail, Lightfoot said at the news conference, 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 dont 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 Chicagos 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.
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 mayors 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, Chicagos public health commissioner, who said she shared the mayors 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 mayors difficult, but necessary decision, saying it was based on reports from the field over the last 48 hours.
It wasnt 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 werent taking it seriously. They werent 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. Thats not an exaggeration. To the extent that we can engage in social isolation now, its 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 werent getting it, the alderman said
In a text message to the Sun-Times, Osterman said he strongly supports the mayors 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.
Its 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 whats 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 doesnt 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. Thats 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 dont 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 cant 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 mayors 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 Chicagos most popular gathering spots. Not this time.
Lets see how this is enforced. Lets 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.
Were living in an unprecedented time of a pandemic. There are going to be limitations on our movements as a result of that. Its a step that was taken that, perhaps, will make people pay attention and, maybe at the end of the day, doesnt last or is necessary for a protracted period of time, but sends a signal about whats important.
The role of enforcing the mayors 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. Weve just suspended the VRI initiative, which is the supplemental police that kind of stand around on Michigan Avenue. Theyve been re-deployed into patrol, Hopkins said.
Its really all-hands-on-deck from a law enforcement perspective. Were taxing law enforcement capacity at a rate that weve never seen. But theres no alternative. Arrests are possible if people do not comply with the verbal warning and the [$500] citation. I hope it doesnt resort to that.
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 its 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. Thats 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. Thats the last thing any of us want and thats the last thing that I want to do as mayor. But make no mistake: If people dont take this in a serious way in which they must, Im not gonna hesitate to pull every lever at my disposal to force compliance if necessary. But, lets not get to that point. We dont 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 mayors threat by closing down the Lakefront Trail at North Avenue.
Contributing: Mark Brown