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Chicago lakefront: A pivotal day in the outdoors and the fight against coronavirus in Chicago

The outdoors and the stay-at-home edict are an uneasy alliance. That alliance shattered Thursday when Mayor Lori Lightfoot closed the lakefront and related parks indefinitely.

Dawn through the fog over Lake Michigan Wednesday while coho fishing on the South Side. Credit: Dale Bowman
Dawn through the fog over Lake Michigan Wednesday while coho fishing on the South Side.
Dale Bowman

[Since posting, Mayor Lori Lightfoot closed the lakefront, the 606 Trail and the Riverwalk on Thursday, March 26. Click here for details.]

The pop of fire extinguishers propelling weights onto the water occasionally dotted the fog Wednesday on the South Side lakefront.

The sunrise slowly burned through — red, yellow, orange — over Lake Michigan.

God, I needed that time.

Many of us absolutely needed that outside time a week into Illinois’ stay-at-home order. I’ve never valued the morning ramble with our beloved mutt, Lady, more. Wednesday made it obvious that Chicagoans might never have valued their lakefront more.

The outdoors and the stay-at-home edict are an uneasy alliance. That alliance shattered Thursday when Mayor Lori Lightfoot closed the lakefront and related parks indefinitely. Also closed were the Chicago Riverwalk and the 606 Trail.

“Congregating on our lakefront, to be blunt, is going to create a risk that is unacceptable and could lead to death,” Lightfoot said. “That is why we are taking these actions and going back and saying again, ‘Dear God, stay home. Save lives.’ ”

The tension between the outdoors and a stay-home order already showed Wednesday.

On one hand, the mechanics of powerlining build in their own social distancing. Powerlining, that quirky Chicago tradition, involves propelling out a weight and rubber band, then connecting floats, a bell and fishing line with multiple hooks. It’s primarily used for salmon and trout, though sometimes for perch, too. The firing of the weights and the drifting long lines mean powerliners need space between them. I put it at roughly 50 feet apart.

No coho were caught while I was on the South Side. The guy next to me lost one, and I heard one other bell go off. So I called Ron Wozny to see how he was doing at Montrose Harbor. He appeared in a Sun-Times story I did last March 13 on the history of powerlining. He said it was just as quiet there.

Even so, I went to Montrose, where we bumped elbows, then talked from a good social distance. We only saw one fish caught, a small trout, but that hardly mattered.

“I just had to get out,” Wozny said, speaking for many.

Gulls shared the lakefront with anglers and powerliners on a gorgeous morning Wednesday at Montrose Harbor. Credit: Ron Wozny
Canada geese shared the lakefront with anglers and powerliners on a gorgeous morning Wednesday at Montrose Harbor.
Ron Wozny

Anybody who was out Wednesday knows how beautiful the day was. It wasn’t just dozens of anglers; there were also birders, walkers, joggers, bikers, scooterers and wanderers. But not as many doing kissy-face as usual.

A couple hours later, Lightfoot exploded during her daily update about the number of people congregating on the lakefront.

“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,” she 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 [where] you are not congregating with other people.”

She isn’t wrong. But I also plead for the lakefront and the parks to be open, as long as people can respect social distancing and not gather in groups.

On March 20, the National Recreation and Park Association issued a statement in support of the safe use of parks and open spaces during the coronavirus outbreak. More than 500 organizations signed on to the statement.

The key phrasing was this:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has flagged mental health as a top concern associated with the COVID-19 outbreak. We recognize that social distancing may take a toll on our mental health, especially during high-stress and anxiety-producing global public health emergencies. We also know that parks provide a connection to the outdoors and green space as well as opportunities for physical activity which studies demonstrate reduces stress and improves mental health.

We believe that many parks, trails and open spaces can continue to be used in a safe manner that allows people to enjoy the mental and physical health benefits these spaces provide. In all instances, we recommend people follow local, state and national ordinances and guidelines regarding the use of these spaces and recognize that these vary from community to community.

There are two important sides to that. One, we need to respect social distancing and other CDC advice. Second, government at all levels needs to respect — no, make that fully understand — the necessity of the time outside, especially in a time like this.

Residents enjoy the warm weather with a stroll along the Lakefront Trail near Oak Street Beach, Wednesday afternoon, March 25, 2020, in Chicago, despite a stay-at-home order from Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker during the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP) ORG XMIT: ILCHS401
Residents enjoy the warm weather with a stroll along the Lakefront Trail near Oak Street Beach, Wednesday afternoon, March 25, 2020, in Chicago, despite a stay-at-home order from Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker during the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP) ORG XMIT: ILCHS401
AP Photos