While Ithaca College students are returning to campus, they are coming back to a different dining experience with fewer options and new dining procedures.
Dining has adapted to follow new health and safety protocols in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Scott McWilliams, director of Dining Services, said all food services on campus are following the New York state guidelines for COVID-19 precautions. These guidelines include physical distancing, limited contact between employees and guests, regular cleaning and disinfection of the facility and daily health screenings for employees along with other requirements.
Dave Prunty, executive director of auxiliary services, said the Campus Center Dining Hall has remained open since March 2020 for students who stayed on campus, and Terrace Dining Hall has reopened to accommodate more students returning to campus. Laurie Koehler, vice president for marketing and enrollment strategy, has said the college has approximately 2,500 students living on campus for Spring 2021.
To maintain social distancing among guests, there are marks on the floor for people to stand in line and there are reduced chairs at each table. In the Campus Center Dining Hall, the dining space is now being used to accommodate the line to the serving stations. Seating has been moved throughout the Campus Center, including on the second floor, in conference rooms and in IC Square.
Some tables can accommodate two or three people of the same household while all other tables only allow one person per table. Each table has a sign that says whether or not the table has been sanitized since the previous person used it.
Food is now served in reusable takeout containers, and guests are given a package of plastic utensils. New York state guidelines require silverware to be pre-packaged or pre-rolled. Dining Services is using carabiners to ensure that containers are returned to the dining halls. Students must turn in a carabiner before they are given a container of food. When students return their used container, they are given another carabiner. Each student was given two carabiners upon arrival to campus. Takeout containers were previously available for optional use at dining halls, but now they are the only option available.
All food is served by employees behind a plexiglass sheet. All employees submit a COVID-19 test once each week and complete a health screening daily, McWilliams said.
He said there have been COVID-19 cases among employees and people who visited the dining hall. In these situations, staff members from the Office of Facilities are immediately notified, and the dining hall is closed while facility workers disinfect the space. The process takes approximately 30 minutes, and then the dining hall can return to operation, McWilliams said.
Students have reported long lines with a lack of social distancing at both dining halls, especially on weekends when there is only one dining hall open each day. At Terrace Dining Hall, the line goes out the entrance, leaving students exposed to the weather.
The Campus Center Dining Hall and Terrace Dining Hall are the two dining hall options for students on campus who have meal plans. The Campus Center is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. with a break 10:15–11 a.m. and 3–4 p.m. and Saturday 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., also with a break 3–4 p.m. Terrace Dining Hall is open from 8 to 11 a.m., 12 to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday. On Sunday, it is open from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.
Sophomore Ian Ertel said he has been able to avoid the busiest times at the dining halls on weekdays but does not feel safe going to the dining halls on the weekend.
“On weekends when they decide to close a dining hall, and everyone who’s living on campus has to come eat at a single dining hall, I don’t feel safe whatsoever because there is just an enormous amount of crowding,” Ertel said. “Standing inside an enclosed building around a lot of people where there’s not as much social distancing for like an hour of time, which hugely increases the risk of COVID transmission, is very frightening and startling, in my opinion.”
Sophomore Tom Cohen also said he does not always feel comfortable standing in line when there are many people not social distancing. Cohen said that he believes Dining Services has an effective system to keep people safe but that students are creating an unsafe environment by not following the guidelines.
“It’s more the students’ fault that people aren’t spacing out,” Cohen said. “I think that’s not really on the dining hall. They do have the dots, and they do have a pretty good system of spacing people out, but I don’t think it gets enforced enough, and it does get a little bit close together, which makes me a little nervous.”
Towers Marketplace opened Feb. 7 — one day earlier than scheduled — in an attempt to reduce the number of people visiting dining halls. Towers Marketplace is a retail dining location, so students must use Bomber Bucks, ID Express or other payment methods instead of meal swipes; although some menu items at Towers Marketplace may be purchased with a meal swipe during limited hours.
The college has stopped offering meal plans with unlimited meal swipes. Students have the option of a resident meal plan that includes 20 swipes each week or a commuter plan that includes five meal swipes each week. Students are no longer permitted to use multiple meal swipes during the same meal period in order to de-densify dining halls and are only allowed three meal swipes each day.
Other retail dining locations on campus include the IC Food Court, Ithaca Bakery and Chick-N-Bap. Retail dining locations on campus are no longer allowing walk-up orders, and all retail dining orders now must be made through Grubhub. McWilliams said this is to prevent lines and reduce the number of guests visiting the location at one time. There is no extra cost to use the app, McWilliams said.
Cohen said he believes the meal swipe option for some items at Towers Marketplace is a good addition to the retail dining.
“I thought it was nice that you could wait in your room even if the wait is long and go pick food up,” Cohen said.
Along with the changes in procedures and operation of Dining Services, the college has also changed food service providers. In 2019 the college switched from Sodexo to in-house operations with food supplied by Maine’s Food and Paper Service Inc., which closed its distribution branch that served the college May 11, 2020. The college is now using Performance Food Group Inc. as its food service provider. The company also serves Cornell University and SUNY Cortland.
Prunty said the college decided to use Performance Food Group Inc. because of positive reviews from other colleges and universities. The new food service provider is estimated to cost less than Maine’s Food and Paper Service Inc., Prunty said.
Employees in Dining Services have also had to adjust to these changes. Vincent Burgess, vegan cook at the Campus Center, said the biggest challenge for him has been knowing how much food to make and serving guests quickly.
“We try to be as efficient as possible when it comes to serving and feeding these guests and getting people in and out in a timely manner with good quality food and a relatively good experience,” Burgess said.
Burgess said he expects dining operations will run more smoothly once all returning students settle into a campus routine. Students who returned to campus had all returned by the first week of February, and in-person classes started Feb. 8.
Dining employees also have the added responsibility of reminding guests to wear their masks properly and social distance, Burgess said.
Cohen said he thinks students need to be more respectful of the dining hall employees and not blame them for issues they have with Dining Services.
“I think it’s so important to treat them well and not be rude to them if you have to wait for so long,” Cohen said. “I can’t even imagine the stress that they’re going through seeing that line start to get longer, and that’s not on them. They’re just trying to get a shift in, and I think that it’s important to be nice and keep them in mind.”