Waiting in line at Franklin Dining Commons, the line circles down the ramp and out the door. After a few minutes of standing in the queue, the most difficult task begins: hunting down a table in a sea of unmasked students. This is not just a description of Frank, however; each dining hall on campus is just as crowded as the one before. Not only are the crowds irritating, but they are also dangerous.
UMass seems to be trying to pass off this semester as completely normal by eliminating outdoor mask mandates. In turn, the on-campus population has returned to pre-pandemic levels and no restrictions on social distancing exist in the dining commons. Indeed, the precautions taken in the dining halls to protect the health and safety of students and staff are abysmal.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, self-serving food is a common risk factor for the spread of diseases, such as COVID-19. Additionally, patrons cannot wear masks while eating, and many only put them back on to leave their table. While masks are effective at blocking the spread of germs, germs can still spread throughout the dining hall when few students wear them. Sanitation stations are also available but there is not enough staff to clean tables and wipe counters. While it is possible to make personal accommodations, it is more difficult to go out of the way to find food when everyone is eating at the dining halls.
COVID has affected more in the dining halls than just students’s and workers’s level of comfort. During fall 2020, many dining hall and food service workers around campus were furloughed or laid off and a year later there is now a severe shortage of workers in on-campus dining. This has resulted in long lines, varying food availability and potential for disease outbreaks. It is unclear how the University will handle an outbreak, should COVID start to spread.
The University should take extra precautions to avoid an outbreak, instead of retroactively handling a crisis. Food should be available for students to take and eat outdoors or outside of the dining halls, and social distancing should be enforced indoors. While these policies may be less convenient for the average student and more logistics for administrators, they may be instrumental in saving lives and preventing contagion. Furthermore, to incentivize employment and ensure maximum safety for all food service workers on campus, wages should be raised significantly, and additional precautions should be taken including hazard pay and paid sick time.
It is up to us, as students and attendees of the University, to be respectful to one another by wearing masks, social distancing and cleaning up after ourselves.