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 OneWestport.com website in a matter of days. It provided up to date information on what’s open and cloed, all around town.