Life at Iowa: Back to the dining halls we go

Students will soon be able to eat within the dining hall seating areas, but feelings about the decision have been mixed.


Tate Hildyard

A Burge Marketplace worker serves a line of students on Monday, August 26th, 2020. Due to health and safety regulations as a means of preventing the spread of COVID-19, the dining hall process has been streamlined with an advanced registration process and a takeout meal process.

Tatiana Plowman, Arts Reporter

For new students living in the residence halls at the University of Iowa, sitting in the dining halls to eat with friends has not been an option this academic year. Residents have become accustomed to taking their food to-go from the dining hall or ordering through the GrubHub option. The option of dining-hall seating will return, however, starting March 1 — though reactions to the decision to reopen seating has been mixed.

The only time that I’ve eaten at a UI dining hall is when I visited campus last year. I remember the bustling noise of students in Burge as they selected their food and enjoyed lengthy conversations at the various booths. I was super excited for when I would be a student at the UI grabbing meals with my friends. Even though COVID-19 had different plans the first semester, I am excited to finally have this option in my second semester on campus.

In an email to The Daily Iowan, Dining Director Jill Irvin wrote that monitoring COVID-19 levels after winter break allowed for the university to move forward with limited seating within the dining halls. The decision was also made based on the treacherous weather conditions that eliminated the option of outdoor seating, she said.

Following the fall 2020 semester, University Housing and Dining sent a survey to all campus meal-plan holders about reopening the dining halls in spring 2021, in search of more student feedback to assist with the final decision. Only 45 percent of meal plan holders answered the survey, with the majority of respondents calling for dining halls to remain closed.

Only 30.43 percent of students felt a level of confidence that students would be able to follow the protocols imposed by the university. Fifty-four percent of students reported feeling very confident that University Housing and Dining would be able to maintain the protocols. I remember filling out the survey and agreeing that the university would do a great job with maintaining the protocols, but I expressed my concern that students may not follow them as closely as the staff would.

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For students like freshman Foster Hazen who live all the way in Mayflower Residence Hall, the announcement of the dining halls allowing for in-person seating was good news.

Foster Hazen is seen in his dorm room on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021. (Brianna Brown)

“Taking food to-go has been an issue all year, because my food is always cold by the time I get back from the dining hall, especially during the winter weather when I am also relying on the Cambus system to get me back to my dorm room,” Hazen said.

Despite the university’s efforts to keep social distancing and COVID-19 guidelines in place, these were constantly broken during every single meal period. At least through my observations in Hillcrest Residence Hall, students gathered in public lobby spaces to eat.

Many of these booths and tables were incredibly close in proximity, and rarely did I see anyone clean their space once they left. With the limitation of one guest per resident in campus residence halls, it’s no surprise that people flocked to these areas when eating in groups.

With the dining hall spaces open, certain tables will be blocked off and constantly cleaned by dining-hall staff. Irvin said staff will clean tables and chairs between each use. These safety protocols are necessary for keeping the dining halls open, she wrote.

UI freshman Grace Ritter began working at the Hillcrest Market Place at the start of the fall semester. She said she thought the dining hall has done a decent job about managing COVID-19 guidelines so far, but she has hesitations about opening up the seating area. Ritter said she doesn’t feel comfortable eating in the dining halls and will continue eating in her dorm room.

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“I don’t think that this is the best decision because a lot of people don’t wear their masks correctly to get food,” Ritter said. “Having a lot of people congregating in the same area will probably lead to more cases on campus.”

Opening the dining halls may help eliminate the amount of trash buildup that has generated within individual dorm rooms because of the closure of the in-person seating. Hillcrest’s outdoor trash dumpster is constantly overflowing with to-go boxes and leftover food — it’s a nightmare to look at and smell. Because food can be taken out of the dining hall, trash and leftovers can also be found in hallways and stairwells. I imagine it’s similar for other residence halls.

This issue of waste may not go away quite yet, however, as the dining halls will not be switching to washable plates or utensils once they reopen seating, in order to keep workers from possibly coming into contact with contaminated dishes.

An exciting aspect of reopening the dining halls is the opportunity to revisit the buffet stations. Currently students may only sign up to go into the dining hall once per meal period. Irvin wrote that students will be able to return to stations but must wear a mask while doing so. While the staff will continue following the “we serve” model, it is still a great addition coming back for students.

I think the reopening of dining hall seating will be immensely positive on campus. Many students have given positive feedback on social media outlets, such as Snapchat, about the decision. The dining halls will suspend in-person seating if the university experiences another COVID-19 spike, Irvin wrote.

I hope the dining halls will remain open for the remainder of the semester. I believe University Housing and Dining will properly handle the COVID-19 guidelines to ensure a safe, but fun meal experience. Without a doubt, I am looking forward to my first meal sitting in the dining hall as an official university student.