Woog's World: Heading back to 'normal' easier than expected

I swim every day at the Westport Weston Family YMCA.

In the best of times, it’s great for my physical and mental health. The past 14 months have not been the best of times. Ever since the Y reopened in June — after a three-month hiatus that made me realize how important that routine is to my life — my daily swim has been a highlight of my day.

The Y has been diligent about following all COVID protocols. Daily temperature checks; limited swimmers per lane, with a reservation system; wiping down surfaces in between sessions (cleaning already wet handrails is a bit much). Whatever it took to assure that they looked out for users’ safety, they did.

Last Wednesday, as I’ve done since last summer, I put on my face covering and walked in. It’s been over a year, but I still hadn’t gotten used to that different type of breathing, and not being able to see anyone’s facial expressions.

Steve — the always cheerful member services guy — looked at me. “You don’t need a mask anymore!” he said.

Within seconds, it was off. I felt free, joyful, even giddy. This was a shot in the arm — not literal, like the vaccine, but more tangible. I did not feel the Moderna working (though I knew it was). But taking off my mask to walk downstairs — that was an actual act. It was my first time in public without a mask in over a year. I really had forgotten what that felt like.

That night, I went to dinner with friends at Via Sforza. The Italian restaurant on Post Road West was an early adopter of all the best COVID practices. They built shelters for outside seating. They ramped up their curbside service (including, for a while, grocery staples that were hard to buy elsewhere). They had paper menus — the whole deal.

Much of that was still in place last week (including a very cute shelter off to the side with just one table, though no more groceries).

But now there were diners inside, too. The place was packed. There was plenty of room between tables (indoors and out), but no one felt like they were in an isolation ward. The vibe was upbeat and fun. We heard the clatter of utensils, and laughter from nearby guests. We did not feel like we were rolling the dice, and this might be the last supper. Instead, we felt … normal.

The next night, I was out again. These were my first back-to-back social engagements in well over a year. This time, I was invited onto the 185-foot yacht moored off Compo Beach. At any other time in my life, I would be excited for such an adventure. Now, I saw it as something else — an experiment.

How would I feel doing something relatively ordinary (not that drinks and dinner on a super-yacht previously owned by Rupert Murdoch is a daily occurrence; I mean just being social), yet out of my comfort zone?

Being spirited off to the yacht, getting a tour of its splendor, drinking wine, enjoying a wonderful meal and spirited conversation, heading back to shore near midnight — it all felt natural.

On the ship, we all checked our vaccination statuses, and dispensed with masks. (The crew kept theirs on.) That was the only time COVID was mentioned. Everything else about the night felt very 2019.

As I drove home in my Toyota Camry, feeling a bit like Cinderella after the ball, I had to force myself to acknowledge the pandemic.

Had we really just spent more than a year hunkered down in isolation? Did we really wipe down everything from hand rails to groceries? Were we actually at a point where we felt naked, ashamed and very vulnerable if we somehow appeared in public without a face covering?

Yes, yes and yes. And yes, how quickly all that slipped away.

I lost a couple of friends to COVID-19. They are just a tiny sliver of the 590,000 Americans who are no longer here, along with millions more around the globe. For their families, COVID will never not be part of their lives.

I am sure that, moving forward, my life will change permanently too. Education, entertainment, food shopping, dining — some of the adaptations forced on us by a tiny virus will become part of the new way of doing things. We don’t yet know what those changes are, but they’ll be intriguing to see.

Yet in other ways, Westporters are already moving on to a post-COVID world. We’re eating out without fear. We’re dropping our masks. We’re socializing on our friends’ yachts.

And I’ll see you Monday, at the Memorial Day parade.

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.