With the omicron variant taking over the country, the University of Mary Washington has taken multiple precautions to protect students. Among these precautions is the return of grab-and-go dining, which students became familiar with during the 2020-2021 school year. Despite the school’s efforts, though, this system is proving to be ineffective already. UMW should clarify its policy on where students are allowed to eat, as allowing students to congregate without masks indoors makes the university’s grab-and-go policy obsolete.
While the return to grab-and-go dining precludes students from eating in the dining hall itself, the second floor of the UC is often the floor most populated by unmasked students eating the food they get from the fourth floor. Especially at popular mealtimes, students can be found congregated in groups, which poses a risk of spreading COVID-19. With no consequences or enforcement to stop students from dining inside, the purpose of grab-and-go dining is lost.
“I don’t believe students should be eating indoors with the current dining situation because I feel that it not only defeats the purpose of the grab-and-go changes but increases the risk of COVID spreading,” said senior and computer science major Kerri Lynch.
Although the school implemented the idea of grab-and-go dining to protect our campus’s population, their ability to follow through and ensure that the system is being executed properly shows a fault within the UMW administration. While it may be impossible to stop students gathering to eat, students can still be barred from the UC, which would help deter more chances of spreading COVID-19.
Senior and computer science major Jane Hill said the University relies too much on students’ willingness to follow protocols rather than enforcing them.
“UMW is definitely relying on you as an individual to do these things rather than them as a system actually making changes,” she said. “UMW’s response to the pandemic, as well as a lot of other things, is very much doing enough stuff to get a headline about their efforts, not enough to really make an impact.”
The World Health Organization released an update about the omicron variant on Nov. 21, 2021, reporting that the initial reports of the variant came from university students. Although these cases were mild due to students being young, the variant is incredibly contagious and has been spreading much faster than the previous delta variant. Additionally, those who are elderly and/or immunocompromised—of which we have both on campus—are more vulnerable to the virus, which gives more reason to continue mitigation practices.
With students gathering in groups to eat at the UC, the return of in-person dining may be delayed even longer. So, as long as cases are high, grab-and-go dining will continue, and an increase in cases could lead to even more drastic changes to student life, such as a return to fully virtual classes.
Hill believes the school should take different precautions.
“What they were doing last semester was the more suggestive ‘oh do social distancing’ but no one listened to it,” she said. “They should have closed up half the seating in there, put away half the tables, half the chairs, open up the additional salon rooms, open up the balcony outside, increase the total space of dining, but you still have a similar quantity of chairs so you still maintain that social space, but it’s more separated.”
Rose Benedict, the marketing manager for UMW Dining, said there is nothing they can do regarding the problem of students eating outside the dining hall.
“Areas that are outside of our dining locations (i.e. the lobby, terrace, fourth-floor seating area around the stairwell, or meeting rooms in the University Center), are not within our area of authority or purview,” she said.
While there is nothing Sodexo can do, she said, “We have passed on to the University leadership the concerns we’ve heard expressed about students gathering and eating in non-dining areas of the building, and we know they are reviewing those concerns.”
As to when in-person dining may return, that is unknown.
“The situation is very fluid, of course,” said Benedict. “We’re ready to revise our operations in response to any changes that might be made to the University policies in the coming weeks. We certainly hope that we’ll be able to return to in-person dining soon.”