Life rings will be installed on the Pratt pier, Chicago Park District CEO Mike Kelly said Friday, 19 days after a teen drowned there and after his family and local officials demanded that parks officials do more to prevent deaths.
In addition to a life ring at Pratt beach, where a lifeguard is normally stationed when the beach is open, another flotation device will be installed on the pier, Kelly said. That reverses the city and park district’s longstanding argument that life rings along the waterfront would encourage people to enter the water and put themselves at risk of injury or death — and make the city liable.
“For now, this is a pilot program, there will be a life ring at Pratt beach, which is normally a manned location, there will be a life ring on the pier as well,” Kelly said. “I don’t love that decision. I cannot stress enough, folks, we’re in the life safety business. We’re in the teach-kids-to-swim business, not anything that gives a semblance of comfort to going in that water where it says do not swim, but we’re going to do it. I’m not above the city, I’m not above the citizenry.”
Despite those misgivings, Kelly said the “decision must be made.”
“There will be a life ring on the pier, there will be a life ring at the beach, there will be life rings on all manned beaches,” Kelly said.
Even as Kelly and Mayor Lori Lightfoot spoke at an unrelated news conference Friday morning, Chicago Park District officials released a statement to the news media that life rings would only be installed at “sanctioned lakefront swimming locations” nearly simultaneously with Kelly’s announcement of the new policy.
Chicago Park District spokesperson Michele Lemons acknowledged to WTTW News the statement was in error.
Park District officials repeatedly removed life rings installed by neighbors at Tobey Prinz Beach Park, where 19-year-old Miguel Cisneros drowned Aug. 22.
Kelly said he did not regret removing those rings.
“I think I made the right decision then, I think I’m making the right decision now,” Kelly said.
Both Kelly and Lightfoot said they mourned Cisneros’ death.
“When we lose a life, especially if it’s a child, it wears on all of us,” Kelly said.
State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, (D-Chicago), who represents Rodgers Park, said she was grateful to the water safety advocates and community members who pressed for the change and “kept the pressure on.”
“This didn’t need to be so hard,” Cassidy said. “Now let’s make sure the entire lakefront has appropriate signage and equipment.”
However, Kelly’s announcement contradicts what Tim King, the district’s general counsel, told the Chicago Park District commissioners on Wednesday.
“Do not swim” signage will be reaffixed and repainted, King said, and materials will be widely shared via community partners regarding the lakefront’s safety regulations, flag system and hours for swimming.
At higher risk areas, likely to include piers, the Park District will completely restrict public access through the use of barriers, King said on Wednesday.
Kelly said Friday that cutting off access would be a last resort.
Community meetings would take place before any decision was reached to cut off access, Lemons said.