Watching the lake and losing money, charter boat operators wait for restrictions to ease

Charter boat operators worry about going out of business waiting for Chicago harbors to open and state restrictions allowing no more than two people in a boat to end.

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Chris Connor with his boat named “We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat” at Crowley’s Yacht Yard, 3434 E 95th St.

Chris Connor with his boat named “We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat” at Crowley’s Yacht Yard, 3434 E 95th St.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

At this time of the year, Joe Donofrio would be taking out his first customers of the season for Lake Michigan cruises aboard his two yachts to enjoy views of the skyline while eating and drinking.

But his boats are in storage, generating a stack of bills — and no money to pay them — as coronavirus restrictions have scuttled boating in Chicago, including the waterfront charter and sightseeing industries.

“There’s fees for storage, insurance, maintenance — the list goes on,” said Donofrio, who owns Free Spirit cruises.

The city’s harbors — like the rest of the shuttered lakefront — are ghost towns, with more than 5,000 boat slips vacant. Normally, harbors begin filling up in April for the traditional May 1 start of boating season.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said it’s unclear when they will open.

On a statewide level, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order that runs through May allows for boating beginning May 1 — but limits two people to a boat. 

“We are working through some of the nuances that flow from some of the loosening of restrictions that the governor indicated will be in effect as of May 1, and we’ll be putting those out publicly very, very soon,” Lightfoot said Wednesday, offering no specifics.

Westrec Marinas, which runs Chicago’s 10 harbors for the Chicago Park District, hopes to open up the harbors May 1 but is waiting on a decision from the city to do so, according to the city harbor’s website. Westrec received permission to extend the 2020 boating season by two weeks to Nov. 15.

Donofrio plunked down thousands for two spots in Burnham Harbor, just east of Soldier Field. If the harbor closure drags on past May 15, he’ll receive a credit to use next year.

“But how many boats won’t be around next year to use the credit?” Donofrio asked. Even if they get in the water soon, charter boats can’t make money with only two people aboard, he said.

“And then, when things do open up, are people going to come? Everybody is so scared, who’s going to want to get in a group of 50 or 100?” he asked. Normally, Donofrio has a couple of cruises under his belt by the end of April, and dozens on the books. He has one cruise scheduled for August.

Opening the waterfront, like the rest of society, hinges on slowing the spread of coronavirus.

But boaters, recreational and commercial, are an eager group. The season is fleeting. 

Chris Connor, who runs Knock Out Charters out of DuSable Harbor, said it’s hard to imagine boaters would be granted access to harbors without the mayor also opening the entire lakefront trail — which was shut down in March after crowds flocked to the waterfront on a sunny day.

“It would be a hard sell to open for boaters and not for everyone else,” he said. “Boaters already get a bad rap because people think everyone’s a millionaire and privileged and everything else. Well, I’m just a guy trying to make a living. I want my business to survive. I want to work. I can do so in a responsible way.”

Some boaters are showing interest in switching to harbors in Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan — states with less-restrictive boating rules. 

“We’ve had a number of phone inquiries from folks who would normally go to marinas in Chicago,” said Milan Kruszynski, who oversees the marina in Hammond, Indiana. ”About 20 or 30 people have called asking about staying for a night, a week, a month.”

Kruszynski said he understands why. “Boats were made to float.”

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