Woog's World: A crazy COVID year

It’s been a year. Sometimes it seems like 5,000 decades. Sometimes it seems live five minutes.

COVID-19 slammed into Westport last March. On Feb. 29 — a date that does not exist this year — the state of Washington reported the first United States death from what was then called “the novel coronavirus.” We know now that other Americans had already died from it. Though that leap year day announcement was ominous, most of us — especially here on the far-away East Coast — paid little heed.

My Feb. 28 “Woog’s World” did not mention the virus at all. I wrote about the new director of MoCA, and what she meant for the local arts scene.

Next week’s column was headlined “A time of great stress and uncertainty in Westport.” I wrote that people were talking about things I’d never considered before: “closing schools, halting travel, quarantining cities.” I am not an alarmist, I said, “but when President Trump tells me not to worry, I worry.”

Sure, I continued, “the effect of a microbe on my life is important. But it’s only one thing that keeps me washing my hands (and wringing them in uncertainty).” The rest of that piece focused on worries beyond the possibility of the virus coming here: what the “recent precipitous stock market drop” would mean during town budget deliberations. The future of downtown, infrastructure and traffic. “It takes longer to get to New York now than it did in the 1950s,” I wrote, “before jet planes and smartphones (though in 2020 there’s still no Wi-Fi on Metro-North).”

Within a week, COVID was front and center. In my next column, I said, “None of us is yet sure of the full impact the coronavirus will have on our community, country, the world or our psyches. Schools may close. Public gathering places like churches, temples, the library and the Y may become ghost towns. Restaurants may suffer grievously.”

I paused. “Or maybe not. We may disinfect enough surfaces, shake few enough hands and touch our faces so rarely that we can skate through this health crisis relatively unscathed. Hopefully, we will learn our lessons and be better prepared for the next superbug, or (it too may come) biological weapon.”

Those words were published on March 13. They were already out of date. Two days earlier, Westport schools had closed. In a hastily called news conference in front of town hall, First Selectman Jim Marpe, Westport Weston Health District director Mark Cooper and other officials addressed the burgeoning crisis. None wore masks, but the urgency was clear. For the next two weeks, until schools (hopefully) reopened, Westporters must be vigilant.

The day before that column appeared, the Westport Weston Family YMCA closed. So did many stores. Downtown looked abandoned. Events moved as quickly as the “superbug.”

One week after that, all hell had broken loose. That’s not just my memory; it was the headline of “Woog’s World.”

“It’s just a few days into the COVID-19 pandemic — in this country, anyway,” I began. “A week ago Monday a friend said, ‘We are going to see things you and I have never seen in our lifetimes.’ I thought he was an alarmist.”

I recounted what had happened after schools closed. With distance learning not yet in place, many students worked on hastily prepared “educational packets.” While the majority of parents enforced the “stay home/social distancing advice they’d been hearing for days,” others arranged play dates, even sleepovers for their kids. “It was like a snow day, but the weather was fine,” I reported.

That Saturday, spring weather drew crowds to Compo Beach. There were “no big gatherings, no circles of chairs and shared picnics.” But the sight unnerved town officials. They closed the Compo and Burying Hill parking lots until further notice.

That annoyed a number of folks. On Sunday they parked all along Soundview Drive, underneath “No Parking” signs. Police ticketed vehicles. But when one car left, another took its place.

The next day, just five days after that urgent Town Hall press conference, 20 cases of COVID were confirmed in town. Marpe invoked emergency powers. All restaurants and delis were closed to indoor service. Food could be picked up curbside, or delivered only.

Just a week into the Westport crisis, I said, it was astonishing what I missed. I’d gladly stop every 10 yards behind a Dattco bus, if it meant kids could go back to school.

I ended with several rhetorical questions about what was to come. However, I noted, “those questions are just the tip of the iceberg. And, like any iceberg, the greatest danger lurks were no one can see it.”

A year later, we’ve had our Titanic moment. Are we sinking to the bottom, or did we make it onto lifeboats?

Check back a year from now.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.