March 11, 2020: The Day COVID Crushed Our Town

On Sunday, March 8, 2020, town officials hosted a community forum on COVID-19, at the Westport Library.

“A small, well-spaced-apart crowd was joined by many more online participants this afternoon,” I wrote.

“Presentations were clear and cogent; questions were wide-ranging and thoughtful; answers were direct and honest.” Topics included schools, the Senior Center, restaurants, Metro-North, budget implications, gyms and the YMCA.

1st Selectman Jim Marpe (far right), at the March 8 COVID-19 panel.

The key takeaways:

  • There were dozens of “what-ifs.”
  • The best precautions included rigorous hand-washing, frequent cleaning of surfaces, and careful monitoring of surroundings and contacts.
  • It was virtually inevitable that COVID would come to Westport.

In fact, it already had.

State Representative Jonathan Steinberg (left),and 1st Selectman Jim Marpe demonstrated the best way to say hello, COVID-19-style.

Three days later — on Wednesday, March 11 — fear had heightened considerably.

A student at Staples High School asked me if I thought schools would close. “Maybe Monday,” I replied.

That night I was supposed to have dinner with my sister and nephews in New York, and see Andy Borowitz. We texted all day about what to do. With trepidation, we said: Let’s go for it.

Suddenly, news came that Westport schools were closing. A news conference was quickly planned for outside Town Hall. Forget dinner, I texted. I have to cover this.

The weather outside Town Hall was beautiful, I reported. But the officials on the front steps were grim.

1st Selectman Jim Marpe, Westport Weston Health District director Mark Cooper and others outlined the day’s rapid developments.

Flanked by town officials, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe announces COVID-19 news.

They noted a private party in Westport the previous Thursday, March 5. Of the 40 or so attendees — of all ages — 14 reported coronavirus-like symptoms.

“It’s likely many people were exposed,” Cooper said. “And others will be.”

Schools would be closed indefinitely, for deep cleaning. Also shut: Town Hall. All meetings, including the Board of Finance budget. The Senior Center. Toquet Hall. The Westport Library (until Monday).

Marpe noted that private institutions must decide for themselves which events to cancel. “We recognize these are tough decisions,” he said.

Print and television reporters kept their distance from each other, at the press conference on the steps of Town Hall. (Photos/Dan Woog)

I still planned one last hurrah that night in New York.

I never went. Midway through writing my story, I got a text. Andy Borowitz had canceled.

The next day, I walked downtown.

The scene was surreal. Main Street was abandoned. Stores were shut; every parking spot was open.

A friend in an office above Brooks Corner spotted me. We talked for an hour. He runs a summer camp. He had no idea if — or how — he’d be affected. We agreed: None of us knew what’s ahead. But suddenly we were very, very worried.

One of my fears was that with Westport locked down, I’d have nothing to write about.

An hour or so after the Westport Public Schools announced they were closing, Trader Joe’s looked like the day before a snowstorm. (Photo/Armelle Pouriche)

I could not have been more wrong.

After returning home, I did not leave for the next 4 days. I wrote constantly. There were stories everywhere.

I wrote about:

  • Constantly changing advice on numbers and safety precautions
  • Store closures: How to get food
  • Church closures: What to expect for Easter and Passover
  • What students should expect, with schools closed
  • The emotions of the Staples girls’ basketball team; COVID canceled the state tournament, just as they reached the semifinals
  • The lack of test kits
  • A raging debate on whether “small gatherings” were okay. “It’s not a snow day!” one news story reported. Some in Westport disagreed.

And of course, I wrote about the beach.

The weekend was gorgeous. Stuck at home Thursday and Friday, Westporters flocked to Compo. Some wore masks. Most did not. Some practiced that new concept: social distancing. Others did not.

Compo Beach, March 13, 2020 (Photo/Jo Shields Sherman)

Alarmed, Marpe shut the Compo and Burying Hill parking lots, and the Compo playground.

Some Westporters applauded his action.

Others protested. They drove to the beach, and parked up and down Soundview Drive.

Police issued tickets. But they were playing whack-a-mole. As soon as one beachgoer left, another arrived.

With the parking lot closed, folks parked up and down the exit road.

All that was within the first 96 hours of COVID in Westport.

It’s been here since.

I realized quickly that I would not run out of stories.

The pandemic has affected every aspect of life here. I’ve written about:

  • The return of college students and 20-somethings to their parents’ homes
  • The continued fallout from “the party”
  • Mental and physical health
  • Westporters of all ages coming together: teenagers shopping for the elderly; women making masks (and yarn bombing trees); churches providing meals; children painting positive messages on rocks
  • Where to find toilet paper, paper towels and Lysol
  • Businesses and restaurants that closed — and new ones that opened
  • Pop-up entertainment, like the Remarkable Theater and a Staples grad who sings opera
  • How to access business loans and other help
  • Hybrid education, Staples’ unique graduation, and the virtual Candlelight Concert
  • 12-step programs, religious services and more online
  • App developers who help the world trace contacts, visualize impacts, connect with others
  • Virtual programming: the Westport Library, JoyRide, non-profit fundraisers and more
  • Where to get tested, and how to get a vaccine.

One of the yarn bomber’s first works, at fire headquarters. (Photo/Molly Alger)

One year ago today, I stood on the steps of Town Hall. I still thought I could get to New York that night.

I haven’t been back since.

This has been a year like no other. Every man, woman and child in Westport has been affected.

We’ve lost 28 neighbors. Over 1,400 here have been diagnosed with COVID. If we did not believe that COVID was real on March 10 last year, we sure did on March 11.

Soon, “06880” will look ahead. We’ll try to figure out what March 11, 2022 will feel like.

But today, let’s look back. We want to hear your thoughts on the past year.

What did the town do right? Wrong? What are you most proud of, or regret the most? How did your life change?

Click “Comments” below.

And remember: Wear a mask!

James Dobin-Smith created the website in a matter of days. It provided up to date information on what’s open and cloed, all around town.

8 responses to “March 11, 2020: The Day COVID Crushed Our Town

  1. Michele Solis

    Dan phenomenal post.
    We all will relive it with you.
    Looking forward to next March 11 2022 post …
    the story of fully recovered Westport thriving again!

  2. Jacque O'Brien

    Such a wonderful post and look back over this scary past year. It reminds us how Westport can, did, and will continue to pull together when needed. Thanks Dan!

  3. What a year it has been. And I was waiting for you and Andy Borowitz when I got the news, already in the city for our night out. I have not been back since. Here’s hoping March 11, 2022 will be a whole lot better!

  4. Great post, Dan, among your many powerful posts this past year! I’m so proud and grateful to be a Westporter. I’m so proud of our leadership, Jim Marpe and Jen Tooker; proud of our school leadership and educators; proud of religious leaders, social services, restauranteurs and students, our children. Mostly I’m proud of our being able to work together and apart to keep this town running and to keep us safe. In this year of deadly illness, racial unrest, polarized political culture and major storms…Well done and thank you, friends and neighbors!

  5. Wow! What I find especially fascinating is that you were still planning on going to NYC to see a show as late as March 11.

    It made me look back to pinpoint our first email exchange about Covid-19.

    What I found was dated February 27, 2020 with the following subject heading: So when are you doing your first coronavirus story for “06880?”

    I was driving two days ago and was listening to LA’s answer to 1010WINS when I heard some of the remarks from the CDC Director.

    And, listening carefully made me realize: there is more than a remote chance that there will be major changes in our daily lives in the coming months—and, if so, who knows for how long?

    Re Westport: at the very least, the Board of Ed must be making plans as we speak that the school year might not be completed in its ordinary course—with the possibility of kids doing work from home.

    And I can imagine the economic hits local businesses will be taking ranging from restaurants to the Westport Country Playhouse.

    And I wonder what kind of planning, if any, they can do for that possibility.

    At the very least, I think there is a decent chance there will be huge economic consequences impacting every area of the country.

    Most importantly, hopefully there won’t be too many fatalities.

    But my guess is, our routine way of life will be changed for a period of time in a way that we have not experienced in our lifetime.

    Looking back in hindsight (and I realize now it was not the CDC Director but some other high-level person I heard on the radio making some brief remarks), as alarmed as I was I still underestimated what was ahead. For one thing, I never would have imagined that Debbie and I would have been unable to get back home to Westport for at least one year from that point and that we would have to continue our stay in a furnished rental for that long. (I believe it is the longest period of time I have not set foot inside Westport since 1963—even during those years Debbie and I were living in the city.)

    But Debbie and I are still grateful for many things, among them that there are delivery and food-shopping services for supermarkets since we haven’t set foot inside a store in more than a year based on my doctor’s recommendation. And, as much of an economic hit that we took, we realize it pales in comparison to what so many others have had to face. Last, but not least, we’re grateful that our moms (in their mid-90s) got the vaccine and have made it through this so far—including one of whom got the virus last fall—and that we will finally be able to see them in the near future.

  6. Dan, this post made me emotional and you brought back so many vivid recollections from this week last year. On Monday, March 9th, I had emailed our acting Superintendent urging him to consider proactively closing our schools. Two days later, I was in the middle of calling town officials inquiring about our schools when the email came out that the schools were shutting. We were told to assume exposure at every school. I will never forget rushing to pick up my preschooler – full of fear and not realizing she would never set foot in her preschool again. I texted my 7th grader and instructed her to get on the bus and get home as fast as possible. I waited anxiously for my 1st grader to get off the bus and when he did, he arrived with his bookbag heavy and bursting with the materials the teachers had sent home with the students without explanation. He looked so small and that bag so big…

    Even then, we had no idea that the days would turn into weeks and then into months. That day – that feeling of rushing my children into the safety of our home – will be something I never forget. What a year it has been. Thank you, Dan, for keeping us all connected and informed throughout it.

  7. Dan, great encapsulation of the past year. As a neurotic, paranoid hypochondriac, the year was nothing I couldn’t handle! As Billy Crystal said, “I have an underlying condition—horror!”
    On the bright side, I realized how lucky we are to live here when seeing people like my sister stuck inside their NY apartments or sidestepping the masses when daring to go outdoors.
    Best thing for me, hands down—curbside pick-up. I hope it never ends!!!

  8. Karen S Abramson

    Dan, you’ve done a great job creating a lifeline during this pandemic! Thank you for connecting us all, since we haven’t been able to do it physically. Here’s to better times….