Warning that she was “not messing around,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday cut off citywide liquor sales at 9 p.m. and threatened to go even further if Chicagoans continue to defy a statewide stay-at-home order aimed at preventing spread of the coronavirus.
Lightfoot said the unprecedented curfew taking effect at 9 p.m. Thursday is much like her decision to shut down the entire lakefront and all its parks, bike trails and beaches. It’s “not punitive. It’s protective.”
Too many “individuals and businesses” have been violating Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order. And, Lightfoot said, “far too many have been congregating at stores that sell liquor,” especially in the evening hours.
Liquor stores have become a magnet for hanging out, particularly in predominantly black South and West Side neighborhoods that have borne the brunt of the coronavirus with 72 percent of all deaths from the pandemic, the mayor said.
“This is not a question of people going outside. … The issue we are addressing is people going well beyond that and, most importantly of all, congregating in a way that puts everyone involved at risk,” she said.
Lightfoot noted that on Tuesday alone, the Chicago Police Department issued “hundreds” of dispersal orders across “every one of” the city’s 22 police districts. She saw those “gatherings in clusters” with her own eyes while driving around the Far North Side’s 50th Ward.
At the risk of inspiring yet another round of hysterical memes, Lightfoot said she told those she saw to “break it up” and plans do more of the same.
“That’s utterly unacceptable. When you do that, you are putting yourself at risk and endangering others, including potentially costing more lives. You’re also putting an additional burden on our public safety resources, which are already strained,” she said.
“That’s why we shut down our lakefront two weeks ago. That’s why we’re now shutting down liquor sales after 9 p.m. And that’s why we will take even further action if people continue to act irresponsibly, including at our parks.”
The curfew order empowers Chicago Police officers and inspectors from the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection “to fine, arrest and revoke your liquor license and other licenses if you refuse to comply,” Lightfoot said.
“We are not messing around with this. And we will not hesitate to take even further action as needed. … I understand that times are tough. But if you’re a business operating in violation of the stay-at-home order, you will be held accountable. We have no other choice.”
Already, eight businesses have been slapped with “significant citations” for defying Pritzker’s mandatory shutdown for non-essential businesses and his order that restaurants stop serving dine-in customers. To date, those fines top $120,000, “and we will collect them,” the mayor said.
Lightfoot said it has also “come to our attention” that some people renting apartments, condominiums and single-family homes through Airbnb and other platforms have been holding “large parties” in direct violation of the stay-at-home order.
“If we find you, we will shut it down, period. We’re gonna also look to pursue license revocations where possible. And I have no qualms about doing that,” she said.
Interim Police Supt. Charlie Beck said his officers have dispersed over 2,000 groups, 300 on Tuesday night alone.
“Many people are getting the point in Chicago. But some are not. We’ve done enforcement. We’ve done warnings. We’ve written tickets. And we’ve made arrests. Now it’s time to limit the opportunities, to limit the things in Chicago that facilitate the forming of groups. And one of those is liquor stores that are open at night,” he said.
To drive home the message, Beck said Chicago Police officers have started making “traffic safety checks” in every one of the city’s 22 police districts.
“Primarily, they’re traffic enforcement to ensure seat belt usage and to check for driving under the influence. But they are also being used as informational opportunities to make sure that everybody understands that essential travel is the only thing that’s permitted in a vehicle. There’s no wandering around, no driving around. No going places for no reason,” he said.
Far South Side Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), one of the mayor’s most outspoken City Council critics, supports the liquor sales curfew. The mayor might even need to take “more drastic” measures, he said, such as by imposing an even earlier curfew or shutting down problem liquor stores altogether.
“This is interrupting the drug market. They’re using the liquor stores as a means to congregate to be able to pass their drugs back and forth,” Beale said. “With everything else being closed, the only place with people going in and out where you can make exchanges right now are liquor stores.”
Beale said he’s sorry it came to this, but the mayor had no other choice.
“When you look at people still playing football, still playing basketball, still not respecting social distance when we have a crisis going on — I don’t know what people are thinking nowadays.”
West Side Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), one of the mayor’s closest City Council allies, agreed the city must use “every tool in the tool box” to flatten the curve of coronavirus cases, particularly in the African American community.
“Liquor stores and packaged good stores become the local hang-out. You’ve got folks who may not present signs but have COVID-19 and continue to pass it unknowingly to their friends — especially in these African American communities where we see the numbers and the deaths triple those in other communities,” Scott said.
“I’ve asked people to remove themselves from corners, but they’re not listening to me. I’ve talked to my commander. They’re not listening to the officers. So we find ourselves in this position. It’s getting warmer. Yesterday, I saw so many people in my community not obeying this shelter-in-place order. It’s really hard to stomach. But hopefully, if they’re not selling, they won’t be hanging.”
Earlier this week, a handful of West Side liquor stores voluntarily agreed to close early. But it wasn’t enough to stop the spread and drive home the urgent message, Scott said.
“When you’re at home and not at work and there’s not much to do, alcohol and things of that nature become more prevalent. You don’t want to restrict everything from everybody. You want folks to feel like they have some sense of normalcy in their lives. But it can’t be at the detriment of others. That’s what’s happening when folks are standing on the corner and hanging out,” he said.
Scott said he has three friends who are “personally grappling” with the virus. He described one of them as a “healthy young man who was a basketball coach and an athlete all of his life.” He’s now “on a respirator battling for his life,” the alderman said.
“I really wish it didn’t have to come to this. But I don’t think people understand the gravity of the situation,” Scott said. “And it’s not just my community. It’s the entire city.”