Lake and river-based businesses endure stay-at-home order
The allure of the tropics, thrill of a regatta, and serenity of a kayak ride are water-based attractions that open to great fanfare every May in New Eastside. But Chicago’s unique relationship with the water will look different this year.
The businesses and organizations that thrive on Lake Michigan and the Chicago River describe what to expect when the weather heats up and the stay-at-home order is lifted.
Columbia Yacht Club
Columbia Yacht Club is housed in the Abegweit, a vintage ice-breaking barge that used to service Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island and is now docked in Burnham Harbor. The Club stays open year-round, except for time in January reserved for renovations.
Since COVID-19, the dining room has been empty and weddings have been rescheduled. However, the Club is thankful for all the donations they received and have been engaging members online with trivia, sailing movies and contests.
With certain restrictions when reopening, Club members will have the chance to dine in new rooms within the Abegweit, including the first mate’s cabin.
McCormick Bridgehouse and Chicago River Museum
The McCormick Bridgehouse museum celebrates the history of the Chicago River and its movable bridges. Located in a historic bridgehouse, the structure rises five stories from its base on the riverbank.
The museum is closed during winter months because the weather is too cold. However, it offers private tours and hosts private parties. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, its season opening has been postponed until June 1.
The museum is refreshing its permanent exhibits for the first time since 2006. The lobby, first and fifth floors will be revamped with new panels, along with a new exhibit that will include an overview of the modern day Chicago River System. Programs will include free lunchtime lectures on Mondays during July and August, and Bridge Lift Breakfast in the fall.
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Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD)
Created in 1889 as the Sanitary District of Chicago, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District is an award-winning, special district responsible for treating wastewater and providing stormwater management for its residents and businesses.
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the boating season started at the end of March for MWRD. With the pause around the city, the MWRD has noticed a decrease in river debris.
“Less people around, means less garbage in the area,” said Brian Levy. “We’re going to be continuing out on the water, and we’re still picking up debris.”
Columbia Sailing School
Columbia Sailing School, an independent organization located within Columbia Yacht Club, teaches nearly eighty high school kids over terms that correspond with regular school semesters. “Most of them already know how to sail,” said instructor Chuck Nevel. “We’re teaching them how to race.”
Chicago’s stay-at-home order took effect the day before CSC was scheduled to launch its spring season, so the school went online to provide quality content and keep the students engaged. During the quarantine, instructors teach subjects like boat handling, communications, rules, starts and tactics, and invite experienced sailors like Maggie Shae, crew member for the US Olympic Sailing Team, to provide guest lectures.
CSC also hosts races for students through virtualsailing.com, an online sailing site that simulates regattas and weather conditions around the world. Roughly 15 to50 virtually compete in Newport, San Francisco, Marseille and Greece.
“It’s like any sport,” Nevel said. “The more knowledge you have and the more quickly you can apply that knowledge in a race, the better your finish will potentially be.”
Island Party Hut
Island Party Hut, a tiki bar that came to the Riverwalk in 2015, operates a fleet of rentable passenger vessels through its sister company, Island Party Boats.
“Anybody can buy a ticket and hop on for $30 and take a cruise down the river,” said partner Steve Majerus.
The businesses shutter during the off-season to complete maintenance and general upkeep on the boats.
In 2020, the tiki bar hosted its season opener on the day before the city dyed the Chicago River green for St. Patrick’s Day, like it does every year. It had increased its sanitation and instituted social-distancing guidelines for the event.
“We have such a huge place, so everybody was able to stay ten or twenty feet apart from each other,” Majerus said.
Then Mayor Lori Lightfoot closed the entire Riverwalk to decrease the spread of COVID-19.
The fleet normally does “decent business” in the early spring, especially with corporate charters.
“We’ve missed out on a few,”Majerus said. “They do add up.”
When the Riverwalk reopens, Island Party Hut expects to modify its seating arrangements so that “a family of four can sit away from other large groups.”
“I would assume that, at a minimum, we’ll be looking at an increased spacing requirement,” Majerus added.