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Connecticut's Route 1, in the time of coronavirus

On a tour Monday down eastern Connecticut's Route 1 corridor, as it hugs the shoreline, I hit the brakes outside a boat dealer in Westbrook, when I spotted two shoppers looking over a speedboat displayed on a trailer next to the road.

It seemed like a quaint anachronism, shopping for a boat on a warm March afternoon. It seemed hopeful, too, suggesting that there will be a boating season after all, and people will emerge from this to buy things other than food, supplies and liquor.

"No," was the quite emphatic answer from the young woman holding a spec sheet for the boat, when I stopped to ask if I could inquire about their shopping.

"I am supposed to be working from home."

So I had to settle for that little glimpse of normalcy, without being able to coax from that young couple some of the optimism that led them, in this time of coronavirus, to head out and shop for a boat.

I drove Route 1 from the Rhode Island border in Stonington to Guilford on Monday, to take the temperature of the region's principal commercial corridor, to look for the normal and abnormal.

I found a combination of both, from the normalcy of busy parking lots in front of supermarkets and drug stores, to the ominous look of so many darkened storefronts in usually busy shopping clusters in Madison, Clinton, Old Saybrook and Mystic.

Who is going to help all those retailers, when the rent comes due? I assume many of their employees are already applying for unemployment.

Big business is open. I am still paying my Amazon and Netflix subscriptions, but no one is paying to watch a movie at the Madison Art Cinemas.

I saw a lot of signs in store windows urging loyal customers to shop their stores online, the ones that are big enough to support a shopping website. But will that pay the rent?

There were lines at drive-thru windows at the Burger Kings and McDonald's, but a lot of restaurants were closed. Many that have stayed open have put sandwich boards at the roadside advertising takeout, delivery and curbside pickup. I couldn't help but read those signs as a cry for help.

Muffler and brake shops were open and seemed to have customers. I saw two open smoke shops, as welcoming as the liquor stores.

There was more commerce on Route 1, indeed quite a few cars more than I expected, a kind of strange balance between the quiet of a Sunday morning and a normal weekday.

Interstate 95, on the other hand, seemed strangely quiet Monday afternoon, with trucks almost outnumbering cars.

I saw only one person all day wearing a mask, oddly enough a woman sitting alone in her car at the Clinton beach parking lot, reading a book.

One of the strangest things I noticed was an alert on an electronic sign board in front of the Clinton Town Office Annex. A series of announcements related to coronavirus ended with a warning that people should lock their cars and valuables, as if a pandemic crime wave was about to wash over the prosperous little shoreline town.

I passed at least a few garden centers with colorful pansies out front, a sure sign that April is here. One had a sign offering drive-thru shopping.

One thing that made me smile was in New London, where I saw city events manager Barbara Neff crossing Bank Street with a dog on the leash. With one side of its head black and the other white, it was the cutest dog I've seen in a long while.

Otherwise, New London's piece of Route 1 seemed especially forlorn, I suppose because the city is supposed to be much busier than shoreline towns.

The most uplifting signs I encountered Monday were put out by the churches. Some advertised online services for Sunday.

The Episcopal Church of the Holy Advent in Clinton had a sign saying it is open for "prayer, reflection and some quiet time with God." A notice on the front door said the church was being disinfected often but that visitors should be mindful that surfaces are not necessarily germ free.

"Love will guide us," said the signboard in front of the Shoreline Unitarian Church in Madison.

"Kindness is contagious too," said a temporary sign in front of the First Congregational Church of Madison, which presides grandly over the town's impressive Green.

My prize for best church sign, though, goes to the Saint Pius X Catholic Church in Westerly.

"Pray the Our Father while washing your hands. It takes 20 seconds," the sign says, mixing the practical and the reverent with a dash of whimsy.

It's the new normal.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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