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Thursday, October 29 News

Woog’s World: Restaurants and school buses change with COVID

Way back in the day, everyone walked to school. Well, not everyone. Some took the trolley. But if you did not have that luxury - and you lived, say, in Wilton — you hoofed it several miles to Staples High School, on Riverside Avenue. Then, after a few hours spent studying (and shoveling coal to keep the building warm), you headed back home on foot.

Then came school buses. They lumbered along, picking up everyone who lived beyond “walking distance.” But that was defined harshly. A mile or two away - sorry, guys. Start walking.

Sometime in the 1970s and ‘80s, things changed.

School buses began picking up every student. For some reason - probably a host of them, all too complex sociologically and psychologically for me to divine - parents began driving their kids. Whether they lived close or not, whether a bus stopped in front of their house or a distant 25 yards away, was irrelevant.

School officials were not particularly pleased. They still paid tons of taxpayer money for a fleet of now-half-empty buses. But they had few legs to stand on. When planning began for the new Bedford Middle School a decision was made to not add sidewalks on Cross Highway. The idea was to discourage walking (and biking).

COVID-19 struck in March. Schools shut down. Traffic disappeared as magically as President Trump said the virus itself would. Our roads looked so sad and barren, I almost wished for a school bus to slow me down.

School is once again open, after a fashion. Buses are back - in fact, they make more runs than ever, now that elementary schools are on split, morning-and-afternoon sessions.

But their rows are almost empty. One or two kids - masked, separated, quiet - fill entire buses.

The roads around schools, meanwhile, are clogged. Nearly every parent drives nearly every child back and forth. Town officials are fine with that. It’s a headache to manage in the parking lots and out on the streets, but it keeps students away from each other. That’s a tradeoff many folks are willing to make.

School buses are only one of the ways the global pandemic has altered the rhythm of life in Westport. Our dining scene has changed too.

When the coronavirus swept in nearly seven months ago, every restaurant was affected. Some closed - temporarily, or for good. Many shifted to curbside pickup and/or delivery. Those with loyal customers, creative systems and/or strong marketing did OK. Many struggled.

During the summer, the rules changed. Outdoor dining was in. Once again, restaurateurs adapted to an entirely new way of life.

Town officials helped. Where before it took months to erect a sandwich board, now tables and chairs filled parking spots. Awnings and umbrellas went up. Single-use menus were printed. The weather was good, and - for the most part - diners returned.

But they returned in different ways than before. Wary of crowds, they spread out - and not just physically. Restaurant owners say people eat earlier now, and later too. From Spotted Horse to the Sherwood Diner, they’ve taken to eating outside. As the weather turns cooler, they simply dress more warmly.

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Indoor tables, meanwhile, remain largely empty. Though they’re able to do so, most Westporters seem unwilling to take that next step toward normalcy.

Yet they are grateful for the social atmosphere (and the food) that restaurants provide. A random sampling of owners reveals few complaints from customers. Little things that used to drive them batty - and, in turn, put servers and owners on the defensive - no longer matter as much. Instead, diners seem to realize that everyone is enduring tough times. They sometimes tip better too.

Though the pandemic has taken its toll on us all - and everything else going on in the country sure hasn’t helped - we’ve changed in other ways too. Back in the day, a long checkout line at Trader Joe’s meant an upcoming calamity like a blizzard (or at least the fear of a few snowflakes). Impatiently, we’d stamp our feet and silently curse the customer ahead who had 120 items, while we were buying just 90.

Trader Joe’s is finally back to its regular complement of cashiers. But for months we’ve stood without complaint, snaking through the aisles (and picking up items we never thought about, while we wait). We don’t like it, but we can’t do anything about it. We can’t take our frustration out on the still-cheerful Trader Joe’s employees. So we wait quietly, chatting with strangers in our new, very different normal.

Still though, we check the time. We can’t be late for that next long line: picking up the kids at school.

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.

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