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With the first confirmed case of coronavirus announced in Westford on March 19, and another confirmed case in neighboring Chelmsford a day earlier, those living in this region, northwest of Boston, settled into a new world of isolationism and uncertainty last weekend (March 21 and 22).
The virus has now reached home base, and Westford residents are taking the threat seriously. They have little choice but to follow Gov. Charlie Baker’s orders to shelter in place and avoid indoor group gatherings larger than 10. Beginning March 17, restaurants could only serve take-out food. Retail stores, such as the Paper Store and more recently Marshall’s, closed for business. Cinema Showcase in Lowell shut down. Workers whose jobs did not involve essential services were asked to conduct their responsibilities from home. All nine of the town’s schools closed for at least three weeks on March 17. Playgrounds and sports fields are off limits.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic that we can’t control. We tell teachers, patience over perfection,” said Assistant Superintendent Kerry Clery as she described how teachers are communicating with students remotely.
All these life changes are meant to prevent the virus from infecting more people — particularly seniors, and those with underlying health conditions that made it more difficult for their bodies to fight the virus.
There are 304 cases in Middlesex County as of March 24, according to the state Department of Public Health website — the highest number of Coronavirus cases in the state, with Suffolk County a distant second at 234 cases. In all of Massachusetts there are 1159 cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 44,000 nationally with 544 deaths.
Throughout the fray, exercise gyms stayed open until March 23, when Baker issued an emergency order requiring all businesses and organizations that do not provide #COVID19 essential services to close their doors to workers, customers and the public.
Banks, the cornerstone of the town’s economy, changed their organizational flow. Middlesex Bank in the Westford Valley Marketplace asked customers to walk up to the drive-through window, where they conducted their business, and were then asked to walk to the front door where a bank employee would hand the customer whatever documents, cash or receipts were involved.
On March 18, one bank customer who refused to identify himself took a rather extreme position, saying that he believed money would soon become obsolete as the economy collapses around us. On March 23 the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down 582 points, but if the stock market brought despair one day, it brought hope the next as volatility sent stocks soaring and plummeting.
Over at the McDonald’s restaurant on Route 110, Nathan Martin, a crew trainer, lamented the March 25 planned closure of the restaurant for an indefinite amount of time. He chastised the town for prohibiting a drive-through window that might have brought enough traffic to keep the restaurant open.
“Like what’s the BIG deal with drive thru? Westford is losing out on so much money,” Martin posted on the Free Westford Friends Facebook page. The restaurant’s closure meant Martin would lose his income. Other nearby McDonald’s restaurants with drive-through windows are remaining open, he said.
Houses of worship suspended all services. Hospitals braced for an influx of infected patients, as healthcare workers faced severe shortages of protective gear.
In a final blow to the town’s life cycle, annual Town Meeting was pushed back from March 28 to May 2.
UPDATE: A photo of Assistant Superintendent Kerry Clery was added and the spelling of her name was corrected. A link was added for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the link for the state DPH was spelled out (Department of Public Health). The total number of cases in the U.S. was changed to match the latest numbers from the CDC. Minor typos were corrected.