The peculiar saga of lakefront closings and openings during Covid-19

Mayor Lori Lightfoot's strategy has been a puzzle for those looking for a pandemic respite by Lake Michigan

The question has been posted at least a dozen times on the popular Illinois Birding Network Facebook page during 2020: “Is the lakefront open?” It’s a natural question: More bird species have been identified at Montrose Point than any other location in Illinois.

I’ve been tracking the story, both as a former Uptown resident and as someone who’s making a documentary about Montrose Beach’s piping plovers. The city closed the lakefront to everyone from late March through early June to protect against crowds gathering and the spread of Covid-19. Then parts of the lakefront slowly re-opened throughout the summer, including harbors, the lakefront trail and businesses like the bait shop and The Dock restaurant. In recent times security quietly began letting people in with cars again, including many birders in search of unusual visitors like an Evening Grosbeak and a Cassin’s Sparrow. Buses, however, were never permitted since March. One wonders whether that’s been a deterrent to visitors from inland neighborhoods.

Then there was this, last Wednesday morning:

“Well this just happened! Lakefront gates locked!” read the Park Bait Shop’s Facebook page.

I later spoke with Bait Shop owner Stacey Greene, and she shared her frustration with the lakefront closures.

“It makes no sense,” Greene told me. “Maybe earlier for the 4th of July, but the rest of it is a debacle.”

The latest apparent closure likely is due to the Tier 3 Covid mitigation steps taking place throughout the city—the Park District website says as much—but it still came as a surprise, particularly to those whose livelihood depend on it, but also to birders and others who might just want to go for a walk.

Only the heartiest among us spend time on Chicago beaches in November, but in the city of “By right the lakefront belongs to the people” it’s worth a look at the odd saga of the lakefront during the pandemic.

MARCH

A lakefront closure in March in Chicago is not that big of a deal, and the Mayor Lori Lightfoot's decision to shut the areas east of Lake Shore Drive made sense. It resulted in many social media memes celebrating the Mayor's move and having fun with all those cardboard cutouts featuring a stern expression. At the time, most of us knew little about the virus and it seemed a near-total lockdown was the best way to control spread (as may very much still be the case). An overly cautious approach felt right—and probably still is.

In the three days after the closure, temperatures registered 33, 36 and 44 as highs. For most folks, it was best to stay indoors anyway. If anything, the Mayor received the benefit of the doubt as President Trump conveyed mixed messages and stated he wanted the nation “opened up and just raring to go by Easter."

APRIL-MAY

The Mayor still enjoyed the burst of goodwill as the weather started to warm. Here's where it became weirder, though, and the lakefront closure strategy appeared to be at the risk of doing more harm than good. In my neighborhood of Uptown, people flocked to a narrow green space east of Marine Drive and west of Lake Shore Drive. This is an area perhaps only known for a statue of Filipino hero Jose Rizal. It was often too close for comfort and seemed to lead to the type of congregating the Mayor was hoping to avoid. The irony was that cooped-up city dwellers needed access to fresh air and green space more than ever amid the lockdown. But we were left with even less space, and crowded into smaller and smaller grassy areas.

JUNE

The crowding just *west* of Lake Shore Drive persisted for several weeks into late May. People were ready for the lakefront to open in some fashion. There were conversations about social distancing ambassadors, timed entry into parks and more, but none of those came to fruition. Then in early June, word started to leak that some of the lakefront areas, or at least the trails, were sort of open again. Finally, I biked over on June 7 to the Montrose Avenue entrance to the park, at the suggestion of a fellow plover fan. I nodded at the security guard, and she waved me into the park. I wasn't sure what to make of it—it was a little surreal to be in the park with no one else around on a warm summer day—but I biked in and got my first glimpses of piping plovers Monty and Rose. In full disclosure, I was eventually allowed to visit the beach along with a cadre of volunteer plover monitors to watch over the birds' nest and, later, their fledglings.

A few birders, cyclists and runners, quietly continued to use the park intermittently for the next couple of weeks before the trail itself officially opened on June 22. Around this time, people were swimming on the beaches without lifeguards, and few activities were monitored or regulated east of the drive. There weren't huge crowds, but it was still puzzling at best. There’d been no official announcements and limited media coverage as the world had rightfully turned its attention to the unjust killing of George Floyd. Again, it was only the lakefront trail that was “open.” Adding to the puzzle, the city re-opened indoor dining at 25% capacity on June 26, a seemingly far more risky activity than going to a park.

Later I noticed that people with boats in the harbor could drive into the park. Marovitz Golf Course east of the Drive also opened and people could drive in and park there, too. By June 30, banners were up at Montrose Beach showing social distancing guidelines, and chatter returned that formal action to open the lakefront was on the way.

JULY-AUGUST

The quirky fun of the springtime Lightfoot memes had long since passed as a summer spike in Covid cases gripped states like Florida, Texas and California. Talk of social distance ambassadors started to drift away as word arrived that lakefront restaurants like The Dock would be allowed to re-open. Still, the surrounding beach and parkland were technically closed.

Around this time lifeguards started patrolling the beach more vigorously and would chase most anyone who set foot on the sand. This led to swimming right off the neighboring break walls, which weren't patrolled and presented all sorts of hazards including submerged boulders and the likelihood of encountering riptides. Some big groups started playing volleyball in the nearby grassy areas each weekend. This came to a head when *the Mayor herself* showed up at one of the volleyball spots on August 8. Sure, it was alarming to see the unmasked groups of volleyballers and others. But it seemed that the muddled approach to the lakefront was what made it possible for the crowds to gather. A few days later the Mayor ordered downtown bridges to be lifted in the wake of property destruction and unrest. It was a divisive maneuver and, much like the lakefront, it restricted movement and sent the message that portions of the city were open to some residents but not others.

SEPTEMBER-NOVEMBER

Starting sometime in September or so, it wasn't just boat owners who could drive into the park—everyone could. I hadn’t been to Montrose in a while and was talking to a birder on the phone when he told me, “Yeah, you can drive right in.” Security started waving all cars through, though the #78 Montrose bus still turned around before the park. Again, this was while the park was still closed, per the Chicago Park District website, and in direct contrast to the image the Mayor projected on August 8.

“There’s really no rhyme or reason to this,” Greene told me. “I don’t know where this is coming from and how this has gone on so long without anybody bucking up against the mayor. It’s taking away taxpayer-funded land and picking and choosing who can use it.”

So where do we stand now? Greene reports that the Bait Shop is open again, at least through Thanksgiving as the perch move from south to north on the lakefront. Birders should still have plenty of opportunity to identify the more easy-to-find species including Common Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser and Common Goldeneye as well as the less common ones like Long-tailed Ducks and Black Scoters. The broader question is whether people have safe and equitable access this winter, next spring and in summers to come. Many of us have the means to drive to nearby suburbs or Indiana to enjoy the fresh air of the outdoors as a pandemic getaway. But many in the community, particularly in these times, do not.

Where to go looking for waterfowl on the lakefront this winter

Montrose Harbor and waters around Montrose Point: Several viewing points remain accessible, and waterfowl tend to stay close to shore, particularly before ice forms.

Calumet Park: A nice mix of species most winters, viewable from the beach house and often in Illinois waters just west of the state line.

Jackson Park (Outer Harbor): Check out a variety of ducks from the cul-de-sac just past La Rabida Children's Hospital.

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