CHICAGO — Lakefront parks and beaches have reopened for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic swept into Chicago — and just in time for the city to thaw after its deep freeze.
Lakefront land east of the running and biking trails opened late last week, two North Side aldermen said. That means residents can visit those parks and beaches — without being reprimanded — for the first time since Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the lakefront’s closure in March.
Ald. Harry Osterman (48th) told residents in an email to constituents Friday the lakefront had reopened. He asked residents to exercise caution and continue adhering to public safety measures when visiting the area.
Tressa Feher, chief of staff to Ald. James Cappleman (46th), said the gates blocking car entry into Montrose Harbor were opened Friday to allow city trucks access to dump snow in the park. The gates remained opened to the general public, Feher said.
The Chicago Park District announced the reopening Tuesday morning. Parks will be open during normal hours, and regulations on parking will be lifted, according to a news release.
People must wear masks on the lakefront, large gatherings are prohibited and social distancing must be practiced, according to the Park District.
“This has been a conversation and a process that we’ve been talking to residents and, particularly, aldermen whose wards touch the lakefront,” Lightfoot said during an unrelated news conference Tuesday morning. “… When we started taking these changes to pare back access to the lakefront, we were in a very different place with the pandemic and we were concerned, genuinely, with the crowds that were gathering and that people were not adhering to the various warnings … . What we’ve seen since that time is people understanding the moment that we are in, and it’s certainly, I think, appropriate under these circumstances [to reopen].
“My expectation and hope is that people will continue to do the good, hard work that is necessary to protect themselves, their family members and their neighbors and understand that the lake is a very important and precious resource that we have.”
The move comes as the state and city are rolling back some of their coronavirus safety restrictions as regions get their outbreaks more under control.
Chicago is now in Phase 4, the phase when the state’s restrictions are at their most relaxed before a full return to normalcy.
Chicago Public Schools reopened to in-person learning and the city expanded capacity limits for bars and restaurants earlier this month.
About a dozen people could be seen walking along the Montrose Harbor lakefront area Monday afternoon, with a few cars parked on its streets. The roads in the park were plowed, and an officer in a police squad car did not stop people driving through the park.
The lakefront quietly opened after months of residents and parks groups asking why one of the city’s most popular outdoor attractions remained closed even during the winter.
The lakefront was closed at the beginning of the pandemic to avoid crowding at popular areas. The city reopened the Lakefront Trail in June, but it kept areas east of the trails officially off limits.
The beaches and parks along the lakefront remained closed even as beachfront restaurants were allowed to reopen in August.
But through the winter, some residents wondered why the lakefront remained closed when it provided one of the best recreation amenities in the city. Exercising in the open air — especially during the winter when crowds are smaller — was a safer option than working out and visiting indoors, residents have said.
“We strongly urge a public rethinking of these overly stringent rules,” the members of the Loyola Beach Park Advisory Council, who oversee one of the more popular beachfront spots in Rogers Park, wrote in an open letter to Park District and city officials.
Osterman said opening other lakefront infrastructure was an issue of accessibility during recent winter storms. The Edgewater alderman said he and other officials representing lakefront areas received “many” complaints about the issue from constituents.
“With this weather we have, allowing people to park their car and go to the lakefront, from a health perspective we felt it was an important thing to do,” Osterman said.
Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, hinted last week the lakefront could soon be reopened. But Chicago’s top doctor said reopening should be done carefully as the pandemic is still going on.
“We’re feeling good about the way things are going,” Arwady said. “We want to be carefully reopening here as long as the numbers continue to support that, and right now they are looking very good.”
Osterman said the public’s use of the lakefront will be monitored to see if the reopening needs tweaking.
“From a COVID perspective, it’s going to be one of these things where we see how it goes,” he said.
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