With the fall semester fully underway, the hustle and bustle of campus is back with in-person classes and events — but crowding in campus dining halls is posing concerns for some students and workers.
Lines snaking out the door at Trillium and students packed side by side at tables against a tune of loud chatter have caught some students by surprise after last year’s mostly to-go dining experience. Some students say they worry about the health and safety of eating in Cornell dining halls, even as University guidance is giving the go ahead to maskless meals.
Cornell announced in June that dining halls would reopen this fall amid low COVID cases and rising vaccinations on campus. But with Cornell at alert level yellow, some students said they’re concerned by crowded dining halls, especially during peak hours such as lunch time.
Scott Wang ’22 has frequented the dining halls this semester and noted this fall’s long lines at the renovated Okenshields, compared to before March 2020 and to last year — when Central Campus’s only dining hall closed as foot traffic dwindled.
“Usually the lines are pretty long, but the line would be so long that it would snake around the entire room,” Wang said. “The entire room was actually full … like a party.”
Last school year, students experienced Cornell Dining operating at a limited capacity. Most students took their food to go, an option Cornell has kept this year. Only a small number of seats were available for in-person dining last year, with students often having to reserve a dining time slot on OpenTable. Dining halls were dotted with physical distancing markers, and students could not serve their own food.
For students like Roland Aristide ’24 and Kelli Williams ’24 — both of whom worked at Robert Purcell Marketplace Eatery last year — the return to closer to normal operations in dining halls has been intimidating, since this is their first entirely in-person semester.
“This is what I imagine the regular college experience to be like,” Williams said. “I think we need time to get used to that, but sometimes going from being in isolated seating to a crowded room of people is daunting.”
Aristide pointed to the amount of people in the crowded dining halls eating, maskless at tables with no social distancing restrictions, noting that this setting feels difficult to work around.
“It’s not their fault, because they’re literally eating, so what are you going to do, keep your mask on?” Aristide said.
Despite concerns about the number of students eating in close proximity at dining halls, Senior Director of Campus Life Marketing and Communications Karen Brown said not to worry.
“Students, who are nearly all vaccinated, should be comfortable taking off their masks for a short time to eat their meals and putting them back in place frequently,” Brown said. “Guidance from our health officials have indicated that this is appropriate.”
Still, many dining hall workers remain wary of potential COVID risks at dining halls across campus.
Williams worked as a training captain at Robert Purcell Marketplace Eatery last semester and the beginning of this semester. While she does not currently work there, she experienced working at RPME earlier this academic year under the current operating conditions.
“There’s a higher population to serve and a lot more tasks for us to do,” Williams said.
Williams said that at the beginning of the semester, she and other dining hall workers had to be re-trained on their first few shifts because current operations — such as the return to buffet-style stations — were so different from last year.
“It was a little more overwhelming, in the sense that I never had to deal with that many people,” Williams said. “It’s also coming back to a completely different job, because it was a different system that I was used to.”
According to Brown, labor shortages have been apparent in dining halls this semester with the addition of new campus eateries — Crossings Cafe in Toni Morrison Hall and Mann Cafe.
“Unfortunately, we are seeing the same hiring crunch that everyone else is,” she said. “We ask for everyone to be patient when visiting dining halls, especially during high-traffic times.”
Despite COVID-related unease, some students have been enjoying dining halls’ return to normal operations, citing better food and more variety.
But dining hall operations could potentially change if campus COVID cases increase, according to Brown. Although positive cases have been on the decline in recent days while quarantine capacity has opened up again, the University reported 70 new cases the week of Sept. 7, and Cornell remains at a yellow alert level as of Tuesday night.
“While we’re remaining optimistic, we also know that the guidance could change and we might need to adapt our operations again,” Brown said. “As challenging as it has been to come up with new ways to adapt to health guidance and requirements, we couldn’t have pulled off what we have for this fall, or for last year, without the dedication and flexibility of our amazing staff.”