Woog's World: Westport's summer of 2021 looks different than summer of 2020

As the world emerges from the pandemic, a palpable sense of change is sweeping through Westport.

The town feels different than it did just a month ago. Driven by many factors — hot summer weather, high vaccination rates, exhaustion from thinking so much about so many burdensome things — we are emerging from isolation. We shed our masks and fears. We live life differently. Or, to put it a different way: We are once again living life.

The changes are visible in many ways, in many places. Take Westport’s favorite hangout — Compo Beach. The sand is more crowded now. New York license plates have returned to the parking lot. The playground is peppier.

It’s especially noticeable on South Beach. Groups of friends once again gather, grill (and drink). There are fewer tables and barbecue pits than before, but you’d have to be a real beachgoer to notice. The smells and sounds are just as they were way back in 2019. So is the vibe.

I threw my annual “06880” party last week. It was the first in three years. Last year it was canceled by the virus; the year before, by rain. This crowd was bigger than ever, with 150 people. They came early, bearing food, beverages, chairs and folding tables. They stayed late. They hugged old friends, and shook hands with new ones. I counted a grand total of two masks.

As the sun set over Owenoke, it was just like old times. That’s been the case with every gorgeous sunset this summer. Dozens of people sit contentedly in lawn chairs. The sun set last year too, of course, but far fewer Westporters saw it. And many of those who ventured out remained in their cars. They feared that something as simple as a sunset could cause death.

Last Saturday was an “Outdoor Shopping Day” downtown. In the summer of 2020, Main Street was moribund. I’m not sure which sight was sadder — the parade of empty storefronts, or rows of empty planters that replaced parking spots. I don’t remember why parking was temporarily banned, but it sure did not help merchants already struggling to survive.

This summer, they seem to thrive. Two gelato shops opened on opposite sides of Main Street. In between, new stores have smashed the women’s clothing niche that dominated for so long.

The long-vacated Talbots space - still known to many as “the Remarkable Book Shop” — opened last weekend as “Local to Market” (at least, its patio did). The concept is intriguing: Local producers of food and crafts have a market for their goods. This kind of place could not have opened during the pandemic. The timing this summer could not have been better.

Restaurants are as hot as the weather. Last summer, outdoor dining was new. Tables sprouted on sidewalks and in parking spots. Church Lane was closed to traffic, and attracted some diners. Still, the dining scene was slow. The places that survived did so largely on takeout.

This spring, Westporters slowly ventured indoors. They were concerned about ventilation, social distancing, even taking off masks to eat. Most of those worries have vanished. People now dine both outside and in. They’re testing out a host of new places. The biggest concern of restaurateurs is finding help. If you can cook, wait tables, tend bar or greet people, you’ve got your pick of jobs.

The Levitt Pavilion is almost back to normal too. They make nods to coronavirus. “Pods” are marked on the grass, and the concession stand remains (for some reason) closed.

But recent concerts have rocked. Darlene Love’s benefit show last Friday was both a blast from the past, and an homage to the present. It was the Hall of Fame inductee’s first live performance since COVID began. At 79 years old (and wearing stilettoes), she had the audience on its feet. They had been warned not to dance in front of the stage (can the virus spread by boogeying?). So they danced instead in their pods. The only thing contagious was their smiles.

Over at the Westport Weston Family YMCA, the parking lot gets more full every day. The fitness center would be close to pre-pandemic levels — except, serendipitously, its recent expansion gives everyone more space. The pool, yoga classes, and summer camps are all in full swing, too.

Can the Delta variant still wreak havoc? Yes. Are we out of the woods yet? No.

But the summer of 2021 is far different from 2020. What a difference a year makes. All across Westport, people are enjoying life.

And, without masks, we can actually see them smile.

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.