In the afternoon of March 26, 2020, every phone in Chicago buzzed with the three frantic tones that indicate a citywide emergency alert. The accompanying message on each screen was fairly straightforward. “Effective immediately the Chicago lakefront, adjacent parks & beaches, 606 Trail & Riverwalk are closed to the public.” Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced these closures of Chicago’s largest park system to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus that was beginning to devastate American cities. These closures, as well as the current rules that restrict lakefront usage to constant motion prior to 7 p.m., do little to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. Instead, they actively harm public health, further widening the rift between the city government and its citizens.
When Lightfoot first declared the lakefront closed, the policy appeared punitive, based on a singular observation rather than a planned and researched effort to curtail the virus. When large numbers of cramped and anxious Chicagoans unable to engage in other activities went to the lakefront on one warm March day, Lightfoot made it clear that she would “pull every lever at my disposal to enforce compliance if necessary,” should Chicagoans not conform to the rules. The next day the lakefront closure was announced, with a $500 fine imposed on those violating the rules. Such “we gave you a chance and you blew it” logic from the mayor of the nation’s third-largest city is unprofessional and should not be used to inform highly restrictive policies that affect all of Chicago’s 2.7 million residents.
In recent months however, the epidemiological community has learned more about the factors that aid the spread of coronavirus. With this new knowledge, the fact that the lakefront closure lasted almost three months, with severe limits continuing to the present day makes clear the truly asinine nature of the restrictions. We now know that the virus transmits far more easily in poorly ventilated indoor spaces than outdoors. This fact, however clear in the scientific community, somehow appears to have not properly made its way down the relevant corridors of City Hall.
As late as May 13, Lightfoot still insisted that Chicago “will not be ready” to open its lakefront, even as cities around the country, including those that took COVID seriously, were letting park use continue. By closing down such a large sector of its city parks, Chicago was not stopping the spread of COVID-19, but rather encouraging its residents to remain indoors or crowd remaining public spaces, both of which are more conducive to viral spread. While maintaining distance, wearing masks, and avoiding crowded indoor spaces are critical to limiting the spread of the disease, closing the lakefront did not help.
In addition to the harmful role such lakefront closures play in curtailing COVID, they also are particularly pernicious to public health. When many residents of Chicago are restricted from seeing many of their friends, as well as going to bars, restaurants, and public events, maintaining physical and mental health is highly important. While COVID is a concrete and deadly threat to public wellbeing, it is important that restrictive measures do not create unnecessary additional strains on Chicagoans’ health. When deaths rose to six times their normal amount in New York City during the height of the pandemic, 15 percent of these new deaths were not due to COVID-19 but rather to heart disease. While an increase in suicides during the pandemic has not yet been seen, many psychiatrists predict an uptick. During a 90-plus-degree day on July 6, the lakefront’s beaches remained closed. Restricting Chicagoans from accessing the lakefront for either exercise or enjoying the scenery harms the city’s physical and mental wellbeing.
When the Lakefront parks finally opened on June 22, they opened with an absurd series of limitations. The large “keep it moving” signs that now line the lakefront inform Chicagoans that those using the parks are not allowed to play tennis, park their cars, or enter the water, all of which are activities that do not require social contact. A series of “social distance monitors” were hired to patrol the trail. Activities are limited to merely being in motion along the trail, which arbitrarily closes at 7 p.m. How many consultants assisting the mayor’s COVID-19 response team were hired to come up with this untenable policy? How many thousands of dollars were spent by the city to create the “keep it moving” graphic? And while I am all in favor of hiring young Chicagoans during the pandemic, is there no other project that benefits the city besides ineffectively telling people to remain in motion on the lakefront trail? Somehow the city thinks that opening indoor dining is okay, but sitting alone on the lakefront is not.
The current lakefront restrictions are accompanied by the presence of many police officers, making an already unpleasant pandemic environment even less bearable. Many people living in Hyde Park are now familiar with the wave of cops that flow into the Point at 7 p.m. to remove people and prevent Chicagoans from enjoying the outdoor space near their homes. Police cars drive with megaphones blaring, announcing the park’s closure, while those wealthy enough to own yachts continue to enjoy the water within sight. Several days ago, I counted 11 police officers next to the 57th Street entrance alone, as the park was closing. A presence of more than five remained last week at the 55th Street entrance at 9:30 p.m., and presumably continued for the trail’s entire 18-mile length. How many municipal funds are being wasted on such a poor usage of law enforcement personnel?
The police also arbitrarily enforce these restrictions. The rule declaring that park-goers must be in constant motion is reminiscent of archaic loitering laws, by which police could force people to move from public spaces at their discretion. Just yesterday, an officer pulled his car next to me yesterday and informed me that I was not allowed to stop next to the lakefront trail, despite the fact that I was briefly drinking water while clutching a bike, and many other people were sitting down next to the lakefront. Instead, I apparently need to drink water “outside the park.” I grudgingly got on my bike to continue on my way, but this was not so easy for the older man trying to catch his breath next to me, who was also asked to keep moving. Maintaining useless, randomly enforced restrictions further undermines civic trust in local government amid an incompetent federal pandemic response that necessitates such trust more than ever. When restrictions are arbitrarily made and enforced, citizens will lose trust and be less likely to follow the rules that actually help.
I am aware that the lakefront closure is far from the greatest issue facing Chicago today. The city has recently recorded some of the most violent weekends in decades. Residents also have to wade through a new world of poverty and economic insecurity. These are highly complex sociological problems, however, and will not be easily solved with a single policy. Reopening the lakefront is a simple step the city can undertake to improve public health, build morale, and fight the pandemic in a strong, principled fashion. Yet Lightfoot still does not see the lakefront restrictions ending anytime soon.
Mayor Lightfoot, end the restrictions now.
Ben Weinstein graduated from the College in 2020.