Some UMD students say they’re not ready to eat in-person at the dining halls yet

A dining hall worker worker sanitizes socially distant tables in the North Campus Dining Hall. (Kurt Leinemann/The Diamondback)

After starting the school year off with carryout-only options, the South Campus Dining Hall and North Campus Dining Hall at the University of Maryland are once again open for in-person dining. 

But even with reduced capacity seating and chairs placed six feet apart to maintain social distancing, some students say they’re not yet comfortable enough to eat inside the dining halls.

Sophomore computer science major Erin Lea said she plans to continue picking up carryout from the diner. She likes the convenience of it: She’s able to grab lunch right before her 1 p.m. class and bring it back to her dorm. And she worries about the risks that would come along with eating in the building. 

“I don’t even trust outdoor seating at restaurants,” she said. “This just seems like a disaster waiting to happen.”

Bart Hipple, spokesperson for Dining Services, recognized that not all students would be ready to try in-person dining. He said the department isn’t telling students to behave in a certain way, but is instead offering them a choice.

Hipple said Dining Services has been getting comments from parents who are concerned that students are isolated on campus. Previously, students with Anytime Dining plans could walk into one of the university’s dining halls and grab a meal with friends until late in the evening.

Dining Services is trying to recreate this experience, but in a limited and safe way, Hipple said.

“We’re hospitality people, we would love to have students in the dining hall all the time,” Hipple said. “But there’s a public health crisis and we also need to be very careful to be safe.”

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The dine-in process is still similar to carryout. Students come in wearing their masks, wave their hands over the sensor and head to the serving area, where their box will be filled. Then, instead of leaving, students can choose a seat, take off their masks and eat.

A reservation system may be put in place if needed to facilitate social distancing, according to the Dining Services website. 

The COVID-19 positivity rate at the university is 1.04 percent since Aug. 19. There were 32 positive coronavirus cases the week after dining halls opened for dining services, compared to 78 cases the week prior

During an interview with The Diamondback, university President Darryll Pines said he’s still supportive of the carryout system, but the university wanted to offer more flexibility to students, as long as social distancing is maintained. 

“We know that COVID is pretty low in our environment, and we’re trying to give people more of a sense of community,” he said.

When in-person dining first opened up earlier this month, Hipple said, he’d typically see about 30 students seated in the dining hall throughout the dinner period. But as it gets darker earlier, the weather gets colder and students get more comfortable with eating in, he expects more students will try in-person dining, rather than bring food back to their dorms.

Lea has observed that more people tend to eat inside of the dining halls at night. One evening, she said she saw around 25 people eating dinner at South Campus Dining Hall.

But when she walks into the dining hall to pick up her carryout meal, she says she feels uncomfortable when people are seated at the tables close by the door.

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Sophomore mechanical engineering major Vinny Maltagliati had his own concerns about in-person dining. He says students are not always seated six feet away from each other, which worries him, since they have to take their masks off to eat. He noted that having fewer chairs at each table would help keep students apart.

But though he expressed concern that some people may be abusing the new option by “extending their circle too far,” he said that starting to offer in-person dining again is a good idea overall.

He tried the option out for himself one morning and said he felt fairly safe. He was relatively far away from anyone else and said he thinks dining staff cleaned the table right after he left.

Although the convenience of carryout is nice, Lea said she misses the pre-pandemic version of the dining hall. She remembers how easy it used to be to go to the dining hall at 11 p.m. and get ice cream.

“[Freshmen] just don’t even know how the dining hall used to be,” Lea said.

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