Woog's World: We started 2020 with no idea

One year ago today we headed to large, festive open house parties (or headed back, hungover, from a large, festive night in New York). We ate, drank and wished each other a happy new year.  We had no idea what was coming.

One day earlier – on Dec. 31, the last day of the decade – Chinese authorities acknowledged dozens of cases of a new virus. Though there was no evidence the virus spread easily, health officials were monitoring it closely. It seemed confined to Wuhan – a city most Americans had never heard of, despite its population of 11 million.

Less than two weeks later, China reported the first death from this novel disease. We still had no idea what was coming.

Over the next few weeks, the news grew more ominous. The virus spread to Italy. But that too was a “foreign” country. We went about our business. We went to Broadway, the movies, sports events. We still had no idea what was coming.

Even after the disease – called both “the coronavirus” and COVID-19 – arrived on our shores, it seemed far away. Washington State is the other side of the country. We had no clue it was already circulating in the tri-state area. We still had no idea what was coming.

Slowly at first – then more urgently – warnings grew. New Rochelle – just a few miles down I-95, over a border that means nothing to a virus – was under “lockdown.” A Sunday community meeting at the Westport Library drew a small, slightly nervous crowd. Others watched safely at home, via livestream. The message from town officials was: Be concerned. Be careful. But don’t panic.

At Staples High School – where Players were in final preparations for their spring show, “Seussical,” and the best girls basketball team in years roared through the state tournament – students asked worriedly, “Are we going to close?”

"Maybe," I said. "But don’t worry. It will be next week at the earliest. And it won’t last long."

I said that on March 11. Two hours later, Westport schools closed.

I remember the day well. I had tickets to see Andy Borowitz at New York’s Town Hall. Suddenly, I headed to a different town hall: the one in Westport. There was a press conference with First Selectman Jim Marpe and Westport Weston Health District director Mark Cooper.

Camera crews kept their distance from reporters. But town officials stood shoulder to shoulder behind the podium. No one wore a mask.

When the press conference was announced, I told my friends in New York to have dinner without me; I’d see them at the show. By the time the press conference was over, Andy Borowitz had canceled. The NBA and NCAA basketball tournament did the same soon. Finally, we knew what was coming.

Except we really didn’t. The school closure was expected to last two weeks. “Seussical” was postponed until April. The girls basketball team still thought they’d compete for the state title, at some point.

Within days, things got real. A “super-spreader” party turned the national spotlight from New Rochelle to Westport. The library, YMCA, and every other institution in town shut down. Supermarkets instituted special shopping hours for seniors. You could have rolled a bowling ball down the Post Road and not hit a car or a human being.

At last, we thought we knew what was coming. Still – more than nine months later – it is hard to wrap our heads around all that has happened. We lost the Memorial Day parade, Fourth of July fireworks, Slice of Saugatuck, Rotary Club Lobsterfest, and so many other community traditions that mark the passage of a year here.

Staples students lost proms and homecoming. They – and their younger brothers and sisters – spent the final three months of last school year, and the first four of this one, learning by laptop. When they did go to school, their numbers were cut by more than half. They followed one-way arrows in the hall, and sat at cafeteria tables separated by Plexiglas.

We had no idea any of this was coming. Yet we also had no idea we would adapt as well as we have. We had no idea that families would discover the joys of walking, bike riding and eating meals together. We had no idea we would collect food for the needy, run errands for the elderly, paint rocks to inspire first responders.

We had no idea we would order takeout to help restaurants survive, shop local to support our merchants, thank frontline workers at CVS, Fresh Market and the post office.

Exactly one year after we first heard about a strange virus, we begin a new year. What’s ahead?

We have no idea.

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.