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Column: Fitness fans flock to reopened Swallow Cliff Stairs, saying ‘It’s good to be back’
Daily Southtown

Thursday, July 09, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Ted Slowik

Hundreds of fitness fans felt joy for the first time in four months Thursday when Swallow Cliff Stairs in Palos Township reopened to visitors.

Forest Preserves of Cook County closed the popular attraction in mid-March due to concerns about overcrowding during the coronavirus pandemic.

Forest preserve district representatives monitoring the site said they had counted 200 visitors by 8 a.m. from one of three parking lots serving the stairs. Visitors climb 125 limestone stairs to reach the top of a 100-foot bluff, said Carl Vogel, the district’s director of communications.

“We’ll be watching it,” Vogel said. “If conditions get where it’s overcrowded, we might have to close it again.”

Visitors arrived early Thursday morning to beat the heat as forecasts called for temperatures to reach the 90s by later in the day. Signs advised visitors to drink water and to wear masks if they entered the public restrooms on site. No one wore a mask while exercising on the stairs.

“It’s a great feeling that the stairs are open again,” said Mohammad Abdallah, 23, of Orland Park. “It’s beautiful weather.”

Abdallah said he had made five trips up and down the stairs after spending about 30 minutes at the preserve Thursday morning.

“By this time last year I would have made 10 or 11 trips, so I have work to do,” he said.

Signs asked visitors to limit their time at the stairs to 90 minutes or less so others could enjoy the experience.

Directional signs instruct visitors how to use the Swallow Cliff Stairs in Palos Township on Thursday.
Directional signs instruct visitors how to use the Swallow Cliff Stairs in Palos Township on Thursday. (Ted Slowik/Daily Southtown)

“Our No. 1 concern is the health and safety of our visitors,” Vogel said. “Our goal is to keep as many of our facilities open as we can.”

A Cook County sheriff’s vehicle was stationed at the main entrance off Calumet Sag Road east of LaGrange Road. Portions of the parking lot were blocked off with orange cones to restrict access and limit capacity.

“It’s an incredibly popular spot,” Vogel said. “It’s probably one of our most well-known locations.”

Some visitors on Thursday said they were grateful to resume their favorite exercise activity.

“For me, this is the backbone for keeping in shape,” said Joe Monahan of Tinley Park. “It’s a short, intense workout. It’s perfect exercise.”

Some visitors said they had exercised at the stairs daily for years before the preserve was closed in March.

“We’ve been waiting for this,” a woman said as she climbed the incline with a workout partner. “We were cooped up all winter, then they were closed.”

Many were happy to return to their workout location of choice.

“This is my Zen place,” a man named Aaron said.

The view looking north from atop the Swallow Cliff Stairs in Palos Township shows reduced capacity in a parking lot on Thursday.
The view looking north from atop the Swallow Cliff Stairs in Palos Township shows reduced capacity in a parking lot on Thursday. (Ted Slowik/Daily Southtown)

The reopening of the stairs felt like a reward for staying home when possible, wearing masks in public and keeping distant from others. The COVID-19 respiratory disease had claimed the lives of 7,099 people in Illinois and 131,065 Americans as of Wednesday, according to official reports.

The pandemic has stolen joy from daily lives in countless ways. Many families were unable to visit with older parents on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day this year. People have missed socializing with friends at bars and restaurants.

The suspension of professional sports and concerts has deprived fans of opportunities to cheer for their favorite athletes and entertainers. There has been no thrill of victory nor agony of defeat, to paraphrase the opening line of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”

Mohammad Abdallah, 23, of Orland Park, pauses while walking up and down the Swallow Cliff Stairs in Palos Township on Thursday.
Mohammad Abdallah, 23, of Orland Park, pauses while walking up and down the Swallow Cliff Stairs in Palos Township on Thursday. (Ted Slowik/Daily Southtown)

Chicago beaches remain officially closed despite the hot and dry July weather. Indoor movie theaters remain largely shuttered, offering no temporary escapes from the troubles of the real world.

Some indoor pools and fitness centers have reopened, but many are reluctant to visit them. Many health experts advise that risks of catching the virus are greater in indoor spaces that lack good ventilation.

That means for many have missed the feelings of happiness that can occur when the brain receives endorphins released through strenuous physical exertion. Some Swallow Cliff Stairs visitors said Thursday they had been running for exercise during the past few months, but it wasn’t the same.

“There are going to be a lot of sore people tomorrow,” a woman said.



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