Lightfoot working on plan to reopen the lakefront — but safely

The mayor said “we have to play to ... the person who’s just not gonna pay attention. What do we do to make sure we keep that person safe and minimize the risk they’re gonna pose to other people?”

SHARE Lightfoot working on plan to reopen the lakefront — but safely
A man ignores a “trail closed” sign on the Lakefront Trail near Oak Street Beach as the city closes the area to pedestrians amid fears of the coronavirus pandemic, Thursday morning, March 26, 2020.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot shut down the lakefront, with its adjacent Lakefront Trail and parks, in March.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Under pressure to loosen her iron-fisted grip, Mayor Lori Lightfoot says she’s working on a plan to reopen the lakefront in a way that protects Chicagoans oblivious to the need to maintain social distance.

“I go back to what led me to close it. We had a lot of education around social gathering, the danger of clustering in too large a group. We talked over and over and over again and people just flat-out ignored the guidance,” the mayor told interviewer David Axelrod during a taping of his CNN podcast, “The Axe Files.”

“What I want to do is, when we re-open the lakefront — and we will — we do it in a way that’s smart. … Unfortunately ... we have to play to the lowest common denominator: the person who’s just not gonna pay attention. What do we do to make sure we keep that person safe and minimize the risk they’re gonna pose to other people?”

On the day she unveiled her five-step plan to gradually re-open the Chicago economy, Lightfoot said people had been sending her “really interesting suggestions” about ways to reopen the lakefront by doing it in phases and having segmented hours for particular activities.

The mayor said she would consider those ideas whenever the city meets the rigid standards she has established to graduate to Phase 3 — what her plan calls the “Cautiously Reopen” level.

But a few days later, she told the Economic Club of Chicago: “Unfortunately at this point, we will not be ready to reopen our lakefront” because a “resurgence in cases is more than a risk. It is a very real possibility we need to be prepared for.”

During the Axe Files taping, the mayor talked again about the need — “I wouldn’t say soon” — to reopen the lakefront. There’s “nothing more calming” or “cathartic” than heading down Lake Shore Drive and “finding that little secret spot” to “watch the water and the waves.”

“We’ll get there. But we’re just not ready yet,” the mayor said.

People still were flocking to the lakefront on Wednesday, and not always staying as far apart as they should.

With crowds continuing to flock to the lakefront despite warnings about social distancing, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she had no choice but to shut down the lakefront in March.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

North Lakefront Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) said there are a number of possibilities to control the number of people on the lakefront at any given time.

They include time-of-day restrictions for different recreational activities; a free, ticketed “timed-entry” system like museums use for popular exhibits; and, ultimately, reserved picnicking spots.

Timed entry, Smith acknowledged, “has lots of issues in terms of equity. You’d have to make sure that everyone had easy access. … Ideas include having free tickets at convenience stores. The way you’d buy a lottery ticket. You could get your free passes to the lakefront.”

Yet another option is to designate different parts of the lakefront trail for walking, running and cycling and imposing what Smith called a “requirement at the beginning that the only thing you can do on the lakefront is move.”

Once picnicking is allowed, the Park District could designate spots far enough away from each other and require reservations.

“If this is the new normal, we have to make sure that the vast majority of the people are willing to comply. And that’s where the rub is,” Smith said.

“What we’re really asking people to do is demonstrate that we are ready to have our lakefront and our bigger park areas reopened. The way to do that is for everyone to wear a face mask when they’re out in public. No one who lives near the lakefront can guarantee that they can social distance with six feet apart all the time.”

Greg Hipp, executive director of the 10,000-strong Chicago Area Runners Association, believes the way to begin to reopen the lakefront is to do it for “through-traffic-use only.” That is, running, walking and biking.

Seattle is already doing just that, calling it: “Keep Moving.”

“We’re proposing initially that the trail only be open from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. for that type of activity. Those are the times when that type of through-traffic uses is pretty common,” Hipp said. 

“The times after that is when people traditionally come out to the lakefront to gather, which is what the city doesn’t want everyone to do yet. And as the public is able to adapt to using the trail in an appropriate way, then the city can determine how to gradually increase the hours.”

Whatever lakefront reopening plan Lightfoot chooses, people will be needed to oversee the new normal of wearing face masks and maintaining social distance.

That’s where the Chicago Sport & Social Club comes in. The organization, which normally operates sports leagues along the lakefront for 1,000 adults, is offering to provide 20 lakefront monitors per day.

“We’d have signage and different types of tools to kind of show people, `What is six feet? What does that look like?’ It could be a ruler. It could be a tape measure or maybe just a piece of rope we could lay out. We could do things like put tape on the ground to make sure there’s a visual they can see,” Hastings said.

Hastings stressed that his small lakefront army would act as goodwill ambassadors, not enforcers.

“The more people are encouraged and they see other people doing it, that’ll be very powerful. We’re not gonna be in any position to force anyone to do anything or reprimand anyone. It’s all about encouragement.” Hastings said.

“If someone does tell you they don’t want to do it, then our response would be, `We’d like you to consider it. Thanks a lot. Have a good day.’ We don’t want any confrontation whatsoever.”

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